January's never the easiest of months: the arctic blizzards; the post-Christmas comedown; stretching a salary to cover five weeks instead of the usual four… However, any keen filmgoer loves this time of year as it signals the arrival of awards season. Keeping on top of Oscar-worthy new releases, each a potential classic in the making, is a near full-time job in January, and Manchester by the Sea most certainly falls into this category.
The story is primarily set in the claustrophobic Massachusetts fishing town referred to in the film's title. Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler who, whilst working as a janitor some distance away, receives news that his brother Joe has suffered a heart attack. By the time Lee makes it to the hospital, it's already too late and it falls to him to break the sad news to Patrick, his teenage nephew, played by relative newcomer Lucas Hedges. What Lee doesn't realise is that his brother has named him as Patrick's guardian, a role which he feels completely unable to fulfil.
That's the setup; some reviews have gone into more detail in terms of plot but I'd advise reading as little as possible beforehand. There are no huge twists as such but threads are subtly unravelled as elements of Lee's backstory and subsequent behaviour are explained. He's a man dealing with unimaginable tragedy, struggling to communicate with those around him.
The narrative moves regularly between past and present but never feels confusing or contrived. The film is a little slow in places but that pace suits the story and gives the camera time to linger, occasionally to quite an uncomfortable degree. It's not an easy watch in places as we're essentially seeing a broken man forced to put himself back together. This is seen early on in the film when the news is broken that his brother has died. We spend many minutes watching Lee dealing with the immediate practicalities of death, and it makes for gently riveting viewing.
The stories are completely different but in terms of pacing and mood, Manchester by the Sea reminded me somewhat of Winter's Bone, Jennifer Lawrence's breakthrough 2010 film.
The screen is filled with actors performing at the very top of their game, but even so Affleck stands out - his recent Golden Globes win was absolutely deserved. Michelle Williams as Randi, Lee's ex-wife, is fascinating to watch, though we only ever see her in relation to Lee; her own story perhaps deserves a film of its own. Special mention must also go to Matthew Broderick who plays the fiancé of young Patrick's estranged mother. He's wonderfully awkward, but very naturally so, during a scene over dinner.
Clearly this isn't as fun as La La Land. It's not as smart as Nocturnal Animals. It isn't as dramatic as Hell or High Water. But it deserves to give all of the above a run for their money at the Oscars and I'd be surprised if it isn't nominated in most of the major categories. Most definitely recommended.