Mastering grief in “Manchester by the Sea”


It’s rare to see so much grief packed into a movie’s 2-hour span. Most movies I’ve come across have focused on one major tragedy (or two), but Manchester by the Sea features a series of unspeakably painful events. Plus a lot of true love.

These tragedies are literally unspeakable for the film’s taciturn male characters. Protagonist Casey Affleck, especially, is masterfully taciturn as Lee Chandler. Ben Affleck’s brother (a better actor than his more famous kin, in my opinion) manages to convey the overwhelming weight of grief in his silence and body language, without an ounce of overacting.

Young actor Lucas Hedges makes for a worthy foil as his nephew Patrick, for whom he suddenly has to come out of his cave to play a father figure. (And in the process, face all the reasons for his caveman existence he’d been avoiding.)

At first, the viewer might think Lee is just a sociopath, but then, gradually, finds out just why he’s stuck in such a rut.

Affleck nabbed this year’s Best Actor Oscar, as well as a slew of other awards, despite protests against it over sexual harassment accusations. In Manchester by the Sea, he’s not exactly the most well-adjusted chap, and his greatest personal tragedy has to do with the little family he’d built with his great love Randi (Michelle Williams). Spoiler: He was meant to protect them, but lost them.

Williams always solidly plays the role of the bereft wife – she has plenty of material to channel from losing her former partner Heath Ledger, having to raise her daughter without him.

In Manchester by the Sea, she also has to find the strength to go on living after even more supreme devastation. And at such a young age.

Yet another loss forces Lee and Randi to interact with each other after being estranged. And only then do we really begin to see Lee’s emotions outside of his withdrawal and aggression. We also experience the impossibility of their love to die but also to be given life: They are too deeply and irreversibly bound by tragedy and a crushing mix of lovely and awful memories of their young passion.

Luckily for viewers, Manchester by the Sea – via the mastery of its writer/director – does not throw these tragedies in their faces all at once; it’s a gradual process of discovery.

The film is in some ways similar to the series Bloodline, in which its charismatic supporting actor Kyle Chandler stars. The stories in both have a strong connection to family and the sea, and their layers are slowly peeled back (expect lots of aha! moments). Think death, estrangement and love that grudgingly remains, somehow. Blood is thicker than water.

But while redemption and healing in Bloodline become a more distant prospect with each passing scene, in Manchester by the Sea they seem ever closer. This is a tale of survival perhaps even more than a tale of death, and survival is difficult without forgiveness of self and others.

Alas, I feel I cannot give any more away without spoiling your viewing experience. The movie’s been playing off and on in the original (OmU) at Leipzig cinemas.

Movie showtimes for Leipzig

A Global Studies doctoral degree holder and former newspaper reporter, avid eater, pseudo-philosopher and poet, occasion-propelled singer, semi-professional socializer, movie addict, Brazilian-American nomad. In this space, she will share some of her experiences and (mis)adventures regarding various topics, with special attention to social issues.

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