Grief, in Manchester By The Sea, surrounds us. It is a film about loss. It is about wounds that cannot be healed. It is about the bonds between men, about the tensions of family obligation and an unflinching America that continues steady in the face of disaster. This may sound like an interminable slog, but writer/director Kenneth Lonergan delivers a film of sharp wit and rigorous structure that defies expectations. His last, 2011’s Margaret, was a masterpiece nearly lost to a careless Fox Searchlight who would not release such a sprawling and dense film, one that recalled the meandering patterns of De Sica’s Terminal Station and the linguistic experimentalism of Eugene O’Neill in equal measure. With Manchester, Lonergan has embraced a more classically satisfying social realism in the mold of Arthur Miller’s 1950s work. The very fact that he draws such an association with these canonical playwrights speaks to Lonergan’s tightly constructed characters, the attention to human detail, and his propensity to draw out conversations for long periods of time.
This theatricality does not forebear the cinematic qualities of Manchester By The Sea. the eponymous town is often established with still, distant shots of smoke billowing from factories, boats coming into harbour; recalling Kiarostami or even Ozu. The town feels alive. Characters given small appearances hint at an entire history behind the scenes. This is how, as in life, conflicts and chance meetings can arise from nowhere. Michelle Williams, after a few small early appearances, returns late in the film as though from the void to try opening up to Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler, a man thrust back into his home town after a family tragedy. This encounter is one of the best scenes in the film, tense and heartbreaking, with dialogue that the audience almost listens to with a hand cupped by their ear for snatches of revealing information. It is riveting.
This is how grief is portrayed by Lonergan. It hangs over us, striking at any moment. The world can taunt you with constant reminders of loss, as when Lee overhears snatches of conversations in the apartments he is tending to as a janitor in Boston. But Lee is culpable himself, literally carrying his loss with him everywhere in the form of three photographs, placing them on the bedside table of his dead brother’s bed when he tries to settle there. The sequence in which we discover the awful reality of Lee’s family tragedy is flashback intercut with the reading of his brother’s will. The scene’s triumph is to present its information so simple and clear. With each cut the audience is aware of the geography and where they are in the timeline. Albinoni’s ‘Adagio in G Minor’ has been cropped up in films so often that its use was even a punchline in The Inbetweeners 2. But here it still packs tremendous power; a universally recognisable song mirroring a very specific but universally understood tragedy, its extended length highlighting the drawn out pain of the sequence.
Lennergan’s confidence in the viewer to understand what goes on off camera and internally in the characters is astonishing. Each conversation is a battle for its characters to understand each other, and when one person reaches a point of utter inability to communicate they literally walk off screen. But we still feel them living, impacting those characters the camera has remained fixed on. There are characters who reappear after five years having completely changed from the people we saw in flashback, but the audience is always given enough by both the dialogue, the staging, and the actors themselves for these to seem like real people and not just tools of a plot. This is a sad film, but not a depressing one. It possesses a quiet power. It is does not wish to impart a bleak worldview so much as it defines its characters so well that it finds the point at which they cannot change.
With Lonergan’s ascent into cinema royalty, it will be as exciting to see where his vision takes us next as it will to continue parsing through the details of Manchester By The Sea. This is a work of supreme maturity and wisdom that recalls the weepies of Leo McCarey and the emotional intensity of Elia Kazan at his finest.