It was the beginning of 2017, and the cinema was filled with commercial blockbusters and a worldwide worship of La La Land, or Hollywood’s Unbounded Self-Indulgence. It was the time when Manchester by the Sea captured my attention as its quiet, magnetic title hinted a good story. I only managed to watch the movie this February after the leading actor Casey Affleck won numerous acting awards in the spotlight. Set in a pain-striking town near Boston, Manchester by the Sea narrates a simpler lifestyle, an affecting story and the complexity of forgiveness. I am often puzzled by people feeling better after watching a sad movie or listening to a sad song, and Manchester by the Sea does nothing but affirms that proposition. I assign the movie a 9/10 as it is one of the best movies I have watched in a year, for its authenticity despite its minimalistic direction, acting and storytelling, and for it captures the emotional subtlety that other contemporary work often struggles to balance.
“And—perhaps the biggest paradox in a movie filled with them—it’s a full-blown melodrama, packed with the sorts of events that a silent filmmaker might hesitate to jam into one film for fear of being accused of overdoing it, and yet the characters are so emotionally guarded, at times emotionally constipated, that they rein the movie in and stop it from becoming too much.”
—–Matt Zoller Seitz, Roger Ebert.com
Some movies inspire while others agitate. It is, however, hard to categorise Manchester by the Sea. I had a memorable creative writing class last Autumn when my instructor, the beautiful Ms Gita, shared with me that every great story was a story of pain. Manchester by the Sea is a story of unspeakable pain. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a moody, self-depreciating man working as technician around Boston and living in a basement alone. He was once happily married with Randi (Michelle Williams) and had three kids with her in Manchester. The couple had an envious life although Lee struggled to accept the fact that his brother Joe Chandler (Kyle Chandler) was in constant danger of dying from a chronic heart disease. Their peace was smashed into pieces when an accidental fire burned down their house and killed all their children. While Randi was remarried to another man, Lee decided to leave Manchester no matter how Joe tried to persuade him to stay. When Joe died several years later, he picked Lee as the guardian of his teenage son, Patrick Chandler (Lucas Hedges) since Joe’s wife also left the family when she could not accept a dying husband. The movie starts when Lee is informed with Joe’s death and heads back to Manchester to take care of Patrick. Lee believes that he cannot be the guardian of Patrick although they slowly bond in Manchester. In the end, Patrick is adopted by a local friend of Chandlers, and Lee, with complicated feelings about his ex-wife, Patrick, and perhaps everyone else in Manchester, chooses to leave the town and goes back to his basement in Boston.
Seemingly melodramatic, Manchester by the Sea is in fact a movie about individuals making up for each other. The director and writer Kenneth Lonergan spends very little time exaggerating the mistakes these characters made in the past. Rather, most scenes are quietly showing how these characters make up for their mistakes across time and how difficult it is to heal the wounds that cut so deep. There is very little shouting, screaming or any form of emotional explosion; characters hide their guilt and sorrow with only their sensitivity being exposed by the way they move and breath. For instance, the fire is only given a brief scene, and no detail of what happened between Lee and Randi after the fire is given. I only know that they divorced, and Randi re-married to another man, expecting another child when Lee goes back to Manchester for Joe’s funeral. During an
accidental encounter with Lee on the street, Randi apologises for saying unspeakable things to him after the fire. “I realised that my heart was broken, but your heart was broken too”, Randi is choking, “You can’t just die”. Randi begged for forgiveness and wondered if there is any chance for them having a lunch together. Lee refuse the lunch offer while avoiding eye-contact with Randi. With just a few lines, I can sense how desperate these characters are seeking redemption, a message so powerful that their struggles resonate with me. For a moment, the ruthless wind blowing in Manchester overcomes the boundary of the screen. There are many more similar instances in the movie with subtle lines revealing softest parts of the characters’ hearts (like Patrick bursts into tears when storing chicken back to the fridge). “Less is more’ seems to be Lonergan’s principle of direction. The strategy avoids the melodramatic cliché that one often finds on unsophisticated tear-seeking movies. A simplistic but not simple movie, Manchester by the Sea tightly grasps my lungs with a broken heart behind every glimpse, every pause and every instrumental note.
Forgiveness is the central theme of the movie, with characters constantly struggling to forgive each other and also themselves. They find it so hard to forgive because they genuinely love each other, no matter what happens. Love is one important reason why we survive, but love has many manifestations, and love make forgiveness such a nuanced task for everyone. I guess that every sad story is a story of love in disguise. It fuels our appreciation of humanity and. It is less surprising that Manchester by the Sea can provide me with a sense of relief that has long been missing in my heart.