Much as I usually dislike spending time in Leicester Square, the BFI London Film Festival is one notable exception. As soon as I arrive for my first film gala each year, I find myself swept up in the excitement of the festival. I booked three tickets this year and then was pleased to find I had also won a ticket to the closing night gala, Free Fire, in the ballot. Usually, the events I attend are split between the Vue cinema and the big, showy Odeon Leicester Square, but this year, they are all in the latter. On Saturday night, I went to two events, including the surprise film, which I've already blogged about. First up, though, was the European premiere of Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea.
I timed my arrival well and spotted both the gorgeous Michelle Williams and the film's lead actor Casey Affleck on the red carpet. Naturally, my LFF excitement levels immediately rose quite dramatically.
I had managed to book a seat in the third row — a little closer to the screen than I usually prefer, but it did mean that when Lonergan, Williams, Affleck and several producers took to the stage to introduce the film, I had an excellent view. Talking about the writing process — and the difference between writing and directing — Lonergan noted that it was amazing how you could be writing a film on a boat outside Manchester-by-the-Sea, a small town on the Massachusetts North Shore, and then a year later you're making a film about a boat outside Manchester-by-the-Sea. "It's the kind of film people should see," Lonergan added. "Even if you don't like it."
Well, although I thought that Lonergan's last film Margaret was interesting but flawed, I was very taken by Manchester by the Sea, a heart-wrenching family drama that leaves its audience as battered as the boat that gets so much screen time. Affleck stars as Lee Chandler, who is working as a janitor in Boston. He is good at his job but hates small talk and yet, as we see in a serious of vignettes, he is forced to try to listen to his clients' personal problems as well as to try to fix their plumbing. Some of these interactions are quite amusing (Lee overhearing a client ask her friend if it's wrong to fantasise about the man fixing her toilet), but the overall impression is that Lee is not a happy man. He seems to have particular problems letting people get close to him.
Then, a phone call bearing tragic news brings him back to his hometown, the eponymous Manchester by the Sea, where he must take care of his teenage nephew Patrick (the excellent Lucas Hedges). Uncomfortable in his father-figure role, Lee struggles to offer Patrick the support he needs, especially as his return to Manchester has awakened all sorts of demons from his past. Through a series of masterfully constructed flashbacks, Lonergan gradually reveals what happened to Lee. It isn't fair to say that he is reflecting on happier times — one has to wonder whether Lee is even capable of being happy — but he has a good relationship with his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and his three young children, plenty of friends and a supportive older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler). So where did it all go wrong?
Although Manchester by the Sea could benefit from a little tightening up, the story kept me gripped, partly owing to Lonergan's subtle show-don't-tell storytelling techniques: for example, the recurring presence of Lee's three framed photographs, whose contents are never revealed, and the origin of the name of the family boat. In less skilful hands, these plot details would have been handled through clumsy exposition, but they feel all the more poignant here. Lonergan's treatment of sound is also excellent: from the loud, jarring organ music, to the mobile phone vibrating during a funeral, to the complete lack of audible dialogue during the funeral scene itself, leaving the audience to imagine what might have been said during these critical interchanges.
It is also a very visceral film, both emotionally and physically. A lot of the characters are in pain — there's a particularly nasty moment where Patrick bashes his head on the freezer door; we see it coming but are powerless to stop it, just like the emotional deluge that is about to break free. But despite the dark themes, Manchester by the Sea has some great comic moments. There are some funny lines — Hedges, in particular, has great comic timing — that help to lighten the tension.
But it's Affleck who holds all of this together. His Lee is broken-hearted and just plain broken: he wants to do the right thing but isn't sure that he can anymore. Afleck flips with ease from the lighter quips ("those are the Misery Islands — where your aunt Randi and I got married") to frustrated bouts of hot-headedness (he has a nasty habit of punching people in bars). This is a very on-the-nose portrayal of a man who has lost (almost) all that is dear to him and for whom life holds little attraction. His chemistry with both Williams, who is terrific in her very limited screen time, and Hedges what could otherwise be a brutal and devastating film a strong emotional core.