Already festooned with praise and award nominations – expect it to feature heavily at the Oscars next month – the third project from writer/director Lonergan starts with the lonely life of hard-working janitor Lee (Casey Affleck) who one day gets a phone call with bad news.
The story unfolds with regular flashbacks showing how Lee and his older, more handsome and seemingly-successful brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) have related over the last few years: you’re soon wondering why Lee moved away and seemed to hide, and why he seems so unmoved when he rushes to Joe’s hospital bedside to find he’s arrived too late.
There’s a shock in store for Lee too, as Joe’s will gives him the family fishing boat and makes him guardian of teenager Patrick (Lucas Hedges), a nephew who barely remembers his “Uncle Lee”, and, more than that, seems numbed to the death of his father.
Dragged back temporarily to his childhood home town, it’s inevitable that Lee finally runs into his remarried and pregnant ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), and it’s clear there’s something unspoken between them.
As Lee tiptoes round Patrick and struggles to deal with the funeral and all the sudden responsibilities he now has, the memories start to flood back more and more and while Lee and Patrick inch towards compromise and understanding, the unhappier times come into focus again.
As you can probably guess, this is an occasionally harrowing family drama that casts a wide and deep net into the lives of the characters. As the contrast between the relatively happy moments of the past – and the uncertainty of everyone’s future – finally comes to a head, we’re compulsively dragged along as we wonder: what’s going to happen to this family?
Appropriately set in a freezing seaside town, this intense film is again another strong narrative from Lonergan (who appears briefly, bundled up in blue parka jacket, as a nosy passer-by).
Co-writer on Gangs of New York, Analyze This and (ahem) The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle, he’s still better known (or he was, until this film), for his 2000 writing/directing effort You Can Count on Me – another strong, compelling drama about a long-lost brother who suddenly reappears.
It was hard to keep a lump from your throat watching that film, and there are moments here too – notably from Williams in her one proper scene – and especially from Affleck, who bundles up his emotions completely throughout that, when it happens, makes you feel everything.
Keep an eye out for the bearded CJ Wilson as George, Joe’s best friend who isn’t afraid to show his kindness – and his feelings – despite being a rough-and-tough fisherman, and it’s also true that Hedges more than holds his own against Affleck.
Their snappy arguments and to-and-fros are a highlight, and offer some rare humour too, but that pivotal scene from Affleck won’t be in any clip or trailer, so you’ll really have to go and see Manchester by the Sea for yourself.
Casey may be the less famous of his siblings, but he’s the better actor, and it would be foolish to bet against him taking Oscar home this year.
Review by James Bartlett