Director: Kenneth Lonergan.
Cast: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, C.J. Wilson, Kyle Chandler, Michelle Williams, Gretchen Mol.
Definitely not a film about a coastal shop selling bed linen.
When films claim big awards for their actors as opposed to the film itself, the film tends to live on in the shadow of the actor.
As great as you might think The Revenant is (personally I thought it was overblown and pretentious), it will forever be the film Leonardo DiCaprio finally (and deservedly) won the best actor Oscar for. As good as The Theory Of Everything and Lincoln are, they revolve in the memory around their shining stars Eddie Redmayne and Daniel Day Lewis. Ditto for Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side and Charlize Theron in Monster (in fact, do you hear these last two films talked about at all these days except in reference to their Oscar-winning actresses?).
Manchester By The Sea is likely to suffer the same fate. It is a solid, beautiful and poignant film, but it lives and dies on the strength of Casey Affleck's restrained Oscar-winning role. Affleck's turn alone is the thing that elevates it to greatness, despite it having so many great elements, and as such, it will be remembered for his performance.
Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a socially awkward recluse who is drawn back to his hometown (the titular Massachusetts seaport) following the death of his brother Joe Chandler (played by Kyle Chandler - I had to spell that one out so it didn't seem like a mistake).
The return not only finds Lee grappling with being named as guardian for his teenage nephew Patrick (Hedges), but also struggling with issues from his past that have left him an unwieldy, pent-up, shell of a man.
Lonergan's film is an exploration of grief that offers no pithy solutions or platitudes, instead portraying it as a never-ending, never-mending faultline that runs through your life from the fateful moment onwards. It's a gut-punching, heartbreaking movie, with Affleck's Lee in the epicentre. He has serious loss in his life he has never properly dealt with and it festers in him like a cancer, bursting out at inappropriate moments and in inappropriate ways. He has been running from it and his return to Manchester-by-the-Sea means it is going to hit him head on.
Affleck's performance captures these ideas perfectly. It's not showy or actorly but rather naturalistic, understated and subdued, drawing you into Lee's world completely. The film's narrative is similarly underplayed. It poses a mystery early on, and after it exposes it, the hook is in seeing how the characters, particularly Lee, deal with it now he's back in town.
Hedges is good in support, and combined with the strong script makes Patrick a real teen, determined to continue with his day-to-day life but still deeply unsettled by the loss of his father. The rest of the supporting cast is also powerful - the under-rated Kyle Chandler is excellent in his role, which is limited to flashbacks, Williams is fantastic as Lee's ex-wife, and Mol is great in her handful of scenes, one of which includes a neat cameo from Matthew Broderick.
The slow-burn pace and quiet tone of the film will annoy some, but more off-putting are some overly dramatic musical choices and the occasional weird patch of dialogue. For the most part, the script is spot-on, but every so often a line sticks out. Similarly the soundtrack choices sometimes make themselves too pronounced. As for the pacing, it must be argued it is perfect for the subject matter, and the film unravels at exactly the tempo it should.
Minor gripes aside, Lonergan has tackled his subject with sensitivity and beauty (the backdrop of a north-eastern US winter is stark but pretty), and with Affleck in the driver's seat he has found a perfect role for the under-appreciated actor.