In the performances of Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams, we’re probably looking at Oscar winners: you could just sit back and watch these two stars totally inhabit their roles. Theirs is a peculiar kind of naturalism, the sort of “real” acting that’s shifted a notch since the method-influenced stars of the 1970s, the cool ironists of the 1990s indie scene and the mumbling hipsters of the noughties.
Here, these screen actors of the highest calibre bring a knowingn maturity to their craft, a delivery that’s both a step ahead and a beat behind, so that the text and the subtext of Kenneth Lonergan’s outstanding script are brought into a dazzling co-existence.
Traditionally, the French are good at this sort of thing, but I’ve rarely seen it done better in American film than in Manchester By The Sea, which thus manages to be incredibly moving, tenderly funny yet also tough as old leather. Affleck plays Lee, a morose janitor in a Boston suburb, a man who’s rude to the tenants and who starts fights in bars.
A sudden phone call takes him back home to the titular Manchester, a quaint, traditional fishing town on the Massachusetts coast, the sort of place where everyone knows your business.
Lee’s older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died of a heart condition and Lee now has to take care of his will and the surprise it contains – namely becoming guardian to Joe’s teenage son Patrick (a coltish turn from relative newcomer Lucas Hedges).
Lonergan builds his drama in fragments. We’re left piecing things together, through flashback and hints, trying to figure out what dreadful thing must have happened in the past to make townsfolk look at Lee with such trepidation and to make Lee so closed and stuck, as frozen as the winter earth.
The film’s naturalistic style is designed to make the slightest revelations come as big shocks. Lonergan is brilliant at capturing tiny moments of huge emotion, but he can only do so by brilliantly depicting the humdrum, too. For example, almost out of nowhere, comes one chance encounter in the street between Affleck and the sparsely-used Michelle Williams that will, frankly, leave you in bits.
Yet Manchester By The Sea isn’t a perfect film. Perhaps it wallows in its grief – and revels in its acting – a touch too much; maybe it thaws too tidilly. Then again, it is a film about life’s imperfections, the flaws and cracks and mistakes that mark us and scar our souls.
Life doesn’t always leap forwards and people don’t always want to change. But in Lonergan’s delicate drama, a little goes a very long way.