Wednesday, 1 February 2017

The Current Cinema - Max Berghouse reviews Kenneth Lonergan's MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

Manchester by the Sea (USA, 2016) Kenneth Lonergan (director and writer), with Casey Affleck (Lee Chandler), Michelle Williams (Randi Chandler), Kyle Chandler (Joe Chandler) Lucas Hedges (Patrick Chandler)

When I was very young indeed I used to watch films at the remaining picture palaces not yet closed at which films barely capable of being commercially released as a worthwhile commercial proposition were shown – like the Capitol in Sydney, then virtually a decaying rats' nest. For present purposes my memory focuses on late 1960's movies set in the South of the USA and involving in one way or another chases and races with huge and raucous American V8 cars. They were films so generally deplorable that if the equivalent were made today it would be "straight to video". There was indeed a market in America, and particularly in the South, for such films, it being an area fascinated by these sorts of cars and these sorts of races. Early maturity gave me the insight to realise that my interest in such films had nothing to do with the cars (nor the plots, all of which were vacuous) but with the PLACE: the South, still drawing into modernity a hundred years after the Civil War, a place of strange, warped Anglo-Saxon accents, and an ingrained poverty that was never visible in most American films, concentrating as they did generally on the drive and pushiness of the east coast and the empty positivism of the west coast.

All of this came back to me as, in a group of four, two husbands and two wives, two interested in cinema and two genuine cinephiles, we watched this relentlessly downbeat film set in a fishing community, Manchester by the Sea, in northern Massachusetts. Whatever else I may say in this review, we spent the next hour or so actively discussing the film and its merits. It is a very serious and worthy film. Deeply imbued with European sensitivity, both as to content and ending, it seems surprising, at least to me, that its reviews have been so good. It eschews completely the almost universal Hollywood line that sadness, grief and despair can be overcome and happiness and contentment will ensue by coming to grips with "the issue" which generally, and helpfully from a dramatic perspective, comes from some "cathartic issue" towards the beginning of Act Three.

Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges
The star of the film, Casey Affleck, who plays Lee Chandler has left Manchester by the Sea sometime prior because of a tragedy engulfing him and his family, so awful in its reality and its impact especially upon him, that he has become engulfed by grief and guilt, working as an odd job handyman in Boston where occasionally, probably too often, his grief, normally turned on himself, instead, like a volcano striking through a fissure of rock, explodes against others around him, with adverse consequences just hinted at. It is a very fine performance, not in the sense that Affleck gets "under the skin" of the character – he doesn't. Very little is revealed of the character, rather it is that he resists the temptation to grandstand and show himself off as "the star". He is a relatively uneducated and uncouth working class man, probably previously involved in the fishing industry, the mainstay of the town, until he left, because the location is unendurable to him. He is not a man of much insight, and certainly the film does not grant him this, despite its rather long running time.

He returns to Manchester following the expected death of his elder brother Joe who had a congenital heart disorder. He returns to the township to take care of "estate matters" like the burial of his late brother and the immediate needs of Patrick, Joe's son. It transpires that Joe in his will has named Lee as the guardian of Patrick (age 16), has made very detailed requirements and also bequeathed allowances so that Lee will remain in Manchester. On reflection, it seems as if Joe is aware that the only possibility for Lee to lead a more or less normal life is for him to be both regimented by daily obligation (like taking care of Patrick) and be sufficiently rewarded so that he finds this not unendurable. I thought of this after the film which, if correct, indicates a much greater degree of groundedness in Joe. Similarly this sort of "now I understand" moment is matched by the script itself which on reflection has numbers of apparently incidental moments and comments which really bear very strongly on the central tragedy and at the end of the film. The script is thus very literary and repays a second or possibly more viewing of the film.

Lucas Hedges who is rather older than the 16 year old character he plays (in fact he was 19, perhaps 20 – and this is significant) gives a wonderfully mature performance of someone determined to survive, having previously prepared himself for what he knows is inevitable, and which comes at the wrong time: the death of his father. The same applies to all the significant speaking roles which lack actorly pretension. So real did some of the performances seem to me, that I had thought, for example, that the funeral of Joe (it is a Catholic Mass, because after all, we are close to Boston) might well have been conducted by a real Catholic priest, because there is the real sense of an act in which too much emotion is suppressed and generally managed. The Catholic priest however was a professional actor.

As a matter-of-fact, the fishing industry in the East Coast of North America is in a parlous condition because of several centuries of overfishing. Neither in Canada nor USA is it the solid and financially rewarding, if very demanding, industry it was, say in the early 20th century. That said Patrick indicates emphatically that he does not wish to go to college and wishes to work the boat when he turns 18. I can't think of any other American film in which working-class certainties have been extolled and valued so strongly. Joe's boat, while seemingly well-maintained, needs a new motor and in an unexpected moment Lee is able to work through that the sale of Joe's gun collection which will enable the purchase and fitting of a good second hand engine. Again, on reflection, this seems to be a tentative but positive engagement in the world.

The last scene is completely open-ended: Lee and Patrick are line fishing from the stern of Joe's boat. What will that bring? Will he return to Boston with a new position as he's indicated he will or will he remain with Patrick, to see his sole remaining blood relative develop? This film has no easy answers and is thus even more European oriented. Although the particular "inciting incident" which causes Lee his permanent anguish, is undoubtedly taxing to a viewer, a scene in which Lee says to Patrick "I can't stay here", meaning the town, because of its capacity to incite the memory what caused him to go, is unquestionably the climax of the film. Lee is not highly intelligent, nor gifted with much insight, but in that comment he acknowledges the burden he will carry forever. The absolute finality and pessimism is not the norm for American film.

I wish I could end my review here because it would indicate a very superior production but there are other matters to be dealt with. The first half of the film, which in total proceeds at a very languid and stately pace, is ultimately back story and not of much interest. The second half is both more moving and engaging. As already indicated, the script is superb. Incidental sentences are in fact structured to heighten our appreciation of the main critical event. Photography again is quite superb. Just enough lingering shots of the coast interspersed with a declining working-class township. Ultimately the length of film doesn't help what is in fact a very difficult plot, to be acceptable. The film is hard work.

My companions took the view that I as an individual and unable to handle "hidden emotions". I don't accept that. Ultimately the film fails for me because neither I as a viewer, nor Lee as a character, can really understand "what and why". Lee's pain is never going to cease (whereas Patrick is going to be a survivor) and his inability to move on (difficult though it may be, other people do) remains inexplicable.

Michelle Williams

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