A Matter Of (Fact) Life And Death. On Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea.

Note. This review was originally published upon seeing the film late in 2016. As the film opens in UK cinemas today I thought it worthy of republishing.

“Oh my God that’s the saddest movie ever made. It would make a stone cry”. So famously sang Orson Welles, on Leo McCarey’s Make Way For Tomorrow. I would like to recycle the turn of phrase (or pilfer, depending how charitable you’re feeling) for my own thoughts on Manchester By The Sea, the powerful and absorbing new film from American playwright and occasional filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan.

Lonergan is no stranger to tales of haute emotion. Margaret, his sophomoric directorial effort, is one of the most overwhelming works of modern cinema. In Lonergan’s work, his portrayal of the high frailty of the human spirit someone manages to steer clear of fully-fledged melodrama, even often seemingly against the wishes of its creator, who superimposes powerful orchestral and operatic scores over his images. Instead, a truth and reality remains, with the film’s easy to attach one’s own emotional standing to. It’s not mawkish or sentimental, nor is it an overstatement to label Manchester By The SeaLonergan’s most affecting piece to date. Quite simply the story of a man coping with grief, Lonergan’s picture stars a never-better Casey Affleck (a man whose oeuvre is as strong as any contemporary actor in Hollywood today, so no mean feat) as the aforementioned man, who reluctantly returns home to reluctantly take care of a dead relatives affairs in the wake of their passing. As is often the case with tales of this ilk there are a number of skeletons in Affleck’s closet, with the character forced to face up to a past that he would rather have left behind for good. While this brief outline may sound trite, or obvious, the film constantly veers away from our expectations, and, for want of a better term, stays messy. Lonergan basks in the unpredictability of grief, and the direction the film takes throughout its generous running time reflects this.

Manchester By The Sea has much to say about the Catholic experience in 2016, an age when many of those of those of us that subscribe to such theological schools often do so without even knowing why we do, or even that we do. There’s a personal expectation that comes with this type of inherited faith; we want to do right, but don’t necessarily know how to do so. We begrudgingly oblige to certain formalities out of some (perhaps misguided) sense of loyalty, or because we feel it is the right thing to do. It’s appropriate then that Lonergan’s film carries with it a sense of the monumental, or the biblical. While nuance is most certainly present in Manchester By The Sea there’s a feeling of the allegorical and sweeping that run over. It’s towering, difficult work, but hugely satisfying, and borderline life-affirming.

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