Manchester by the Sea (2016)


It takes a while for this slow and quiet study of a man to hit its stride and to show its colours. We meet Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) as he goes about his job as a Boston janitor, at the beck and call of people in four apartment buildings. Lee seems shy and awkward but a few scenes show us it is perhaps a simmering anger that keeps him quiet. Interspersed with the monotony of his life, we see scenes of him on a boat with his brother and nephew and it is only gradually that we become aware these are flashbacks. A phone call brings him home to Manchester. His brother has died, leaving him the responsibility of his 16-year-old nephew Patrick.

By now you’re thinking this is another of those Hollywood films about men being redeemed by discovering fatherhood, but it’s not. There is a moment around halfway through where Albinoni’s Adagio begins to play and doesn’t let up until it has dragged us through the story of how Lee became the man he is now. We have been given hints that there is some salacious story around him and several threads that went unnoticed before become clear; how in all the flashbacks he’s a different person, why he is desperate to leave, why being responsible for another human being might be more than he can cope with. So this is not about fatherhood but about what we can’t accept within ourselves.

Although there’s nothing terribly wrong with this film, I didn’t love it. It doesn’t feel like a movie to love, more one to endure because of the weight of the story and how long it takes to tell it. There is a bit of clunkiness – the classical music, although lovely, is unsubtle and too obviously a ploy for emotion. The characterisation of 16-year-old Patrick is awkward. He seems to show no obvious grief at his father’s death, other than a clumsy scene where he becomes upset at frozen food. There is some nice comedy in his interactions with Lee, but his selfishness and seeming misogyny are never really questioned nor explored. He seems to exist just to help us understand Lee.

I didn’t come into this film unbiased. I knew I was going to struggle to get past the allegations against Affleck of sexual harassment by female film crew on an earlier film. In some ways it helped me empathise with the characters in Manchester who can’t forgive Lee his past.

And again, as with so many worthy big name US films, the female characters are ludicrously marginalised, there to frame the character of the lead. Michelle Williams has received praise for her role as Randi, Lee’s ex-wife, and a Best Supporting actor nomination, but her character has no depth and exists to show us Lee’s failings. Then there’s Lee’s brother’s ex-wife, friend George’s wife, nephew Patrick’s two (!!) girlfriends and one of their mothers. We barely remember their names and they are stereotypes –  pathetic mothers, absent mothers, nurturing mothers, sexual conquests. This film is the worse for it.

Currently in cinemas

Bechdel test – fail
3.5 stars

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