Movie review – Manchester by the Sea

I like a film that has the confidence to play its hand slowly. Very slowly. One that keeps the audience guessing, rather than ramming its plot down your throat from the opening credits.

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In the opening scenes of Manchester by the Sea we see a shell of a man. He’s a janitor, living in a single room in the basement of a block of flats in a Boston neighbourhood. He shovels snow every day. He does the plumbing. He unblocks toilets. He’s disinterested in the siren calls of two women. He drinks alone. We see a man who is both isolated and angry, going through the motions of an empty life.

It’s only in flashbacks that we come to understand the backdrop of Lee’s separation from life, and when he has to return to the workaday seaside community where he once lived, an hour or so north-east of the city.

Back for his brother’s funeral, Lee is shocked to hear that he has been made the legal guardian of his 16 year-old nephew.

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The unwanted relationship, forced on both Lee and young Patrick, is painful to watch. The confident teenager has a much fuller life than his sad uncle, but it seems that he will be forced to move to Boston with Uncle Lee.

But gradually they come to understand better each other’s difficult situation, and we also grasp the tragic reason why Lee is sleep-walking through life.

The acting is understated in the extreme. Casey Affleck, as Lee, says more with his haunted expressions than a mountain of words could ever portray. His is a performance that fully deserves the Best Actor nod. Newcomer Lucas Hedges is sensational as teenager Patrick. And Michelle Williams, Lee’s ex-wife Randi,  will break your heart all over again.

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Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea is not a feel-good movie, but the quality of the writing and the acting, the beauty of the cinematography and the slowness of the hand-playing make this a cinematic joy.

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