Released in 2016, Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea is a masterpiece in the portrayal of loss. The movie was awarded best screenplay and Casey Affleck clinched best actor at Oscars for this. The story centers on the protagonist, Lee, who is forced to move back to his hometown, Manchester. He returns after his brother dies unexpectedly leaving him as the legal guardian of his teenage nephew. Spoilers ahead.
A slow but gripping film, Manchester by the Sea not only delivers fantastic storytelling but also some of the most incredible and fitting cinematography that I have seen all year.
What makes Manchester by the Sea the incredible film it is?
This is a film that sets out to explore Lee’s present life through a fog of emotions stemmed in his past. Lee dealing with the guardianship of his teenage nephew would be uninteresting without the backstory of an accident where he lost his kids in a fire. The film, hence, relies on switching back and forth between the past and the present. You need to be attentive. Without simple details that lie in the present, one can feel lost in scenes and details alluded to in the flashbacks.
Unlike methods traditionally used in showing flashbacks, Manchester by the Sea offers no change in color schemes, no fancy transitioning or change in aspect ratio. Essentially nothing that can distinguish a flashback from the present. Scenes of the past and the present seamlessly blend; just as the past and present are so intertwined in Lee’s life. Lee, as a character, cannot dissociate himself from the guilt of his past. This makes him reluctant in taking on his new role of guardianship and a generally disconnected individual. Therefore, it is fitting that the Lee we experience is visually indistinguishable from the Lee of then and now. The technique is simple yet meaningful for the story that is being told.
When we meet Lee at the beginning of the film, it is established that he is disconnected from his society and most things around him. We see a montage of him working as a janitor in many homes in New England. All the while he puts in no effort to talk to any of them beyond the bare necessities. The shots throughout the film are mostly wide shots, and at times this can feel uncomfortable like we are being restrained from getting closer. As the director keeps him at a safe distance from the camera, as does Lee keep everyone in his life at a safe distance from him out of fear that he will mess up again.
Moreover, this film does not blur out its location in the background. Rather, the town of Manchester-by-the-Sea is a significant element in the story. The town haunts Lee but he is also deeply rooted in it. Lastly, Manchester by the Sea is filled with beautiful shots – mostly long shots – in a cool-toned and solemn filter. The color scheme of the film sets up the atmosphere of mourning and gloom. These features at up to a movie that is about loss.
The presentation of grief and change
Grief is a common theme in films – from indie to rom-com to thrillers. Usually, though, grief is portrayed as a definitive emotion that is most strongly present in important rites of passages – like with the death of a character, relatives at a funeral or sickness. Characters usually experience a moment of revelation or realization in which life will never be the same anymore. It all comes down to a very dramatic, intense moment, which is always well-timed.
However, Manchester by the Sea takes a different route with its portrayal of grief. In fact, in the moments where a typical film would remain absolutely sober, this film puts in humor. This makes sense to the viewer, sure, sometimes funerals have a darkly comic tone to them and sometimes tragedy is best dealt with humor. It is very human emotion to feel insanely awkward and insensitively funny at the face of grief or tragedy. The complicated emotion of grief creeps in during unexpected moments. Very, otherwise casual, everyday things can intensify our grievances, not a funeral of a loved one but a favorite song on the radio of the loved one, months after te funeral
A poignant film
In summary, Manchester by the Sea is an incredible film because of the portrayal of real life and emotions in a nuanced and relatable way.
We don’t get the ending we hoped for Lee – he gives up his guardianship of Patrick – but he is changed as a character by the end. The film validates that healing isn’t always a drastic change, but is slow and in small doses.
As the director Lonergan put it, “Some people live with their trauma for years. I’m not interested in rubbing people’s faces in suffering … But I don’t like this lie that everybody gets over things that easily. Some people can’t get over something major that’s happened to them at all; why can’t they have a movie too?”