****1/2 (out of five)
You may have heard that Manchester By The Sea, Kenneth Lonergan’s Oscar-nominated third feature as writer/director, is very sad. What you may not have heard is that, for the vast majority of its running time, it is very, very funny.
Lonergan, an established playwright as well as filmmaker, can write, and he can write killer dialogue. Manchester By The Sea has an intricate, complicated, extremely well-crafted structure, a thematically rich story covered with depth and sensitivity, but it also boasts absolutely wonderful back-and-forth banter that is always witty and sometimes hilarious. It is a far funnier movie than many of the “comedies” released over the last few years.
That banter mainly – though not exclusively – occurs between Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) and his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Patrick’s dad (Kyle Chandler – the name is weirdly co-incidental), Lee’s older brother, has died from his chronic heart condition, and he and Lee are coming to terms with their grief and each other, as Lee has been named Patrick’s guardian in his brother’s will. They get along, terrifically in fact, but Lee has other grief in his not-too-distant past, the kind shredded and studded with suffocating guilt, and he is spiky and disoriented, removed slightly from the real world, ajar and adrift. Instant fatherhood was not on his agenda, but somehow he has to make it work, not only because he loves his nephew, but also because his brother, by all accounts an extremely decent man, was very much his best friend.
I had the strange impression that Manchester By The Sea may be composed of endless scenes of a dreary mope, but that is so not the case. Besides the many fire-cracker scenes between Affleck and Hedges (both are superb), and similarly excellent scenes involving Affleck and Michelle Williams as his wife, C.J. Wilson as his brother’s best friend, and many other inhabitants of the titular Massachusetts town, all played by excellent actors, there are scenes that simply follow Patrick’s storyline, leaving Lee off-screen, doing his own thing. It is a wider, broader, bigger film than its marketing may suggest, crackling with energy, pace, and dramatic heft.
It is also stunningly beautiful. The seaside locations are exquisitely shot by Jody Lee Lipes; Massachusetts is rendered simultaneously realistically – cold, old, ornery – and somewhat idealistically, the bounteous water and highway-side forests sparkling with crisp winter light. The music – a combination of original compositions by Lesley Barber and well-used classical pieces – is bold and rich, edging the visuals into poetic mini-montages that consistently punctuate the very human drama. The production design, while never drawing attention to itself, is flawless. I know Massachusetts very well, and this is Massachusetts.
Manchester By The Sea is a great film. It is thoroughly involving, deeply moving, and sparkles with humanity. Highly recommended and my favourite of the big Oscar contenders for 2016.