Oldham On Sea Welcomes Careful Bathers

Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, 2016)

There’s a truism, to set aside the assertion that there are no famous Belgians, that there is no great novel set in Manchester. Well, here we have a contender, although I’m not sure where they filmed it. The Manchester Ship Canal never looked so good, is what I’m saying.

And everyone speaks with American actions.

So we begin with Lee Chandler, a janitor, Casey Affleck — you know, the talented brother — dealing with a series of thankless jobs in various apartments, mistreated by some tenants, hit on by others, clearly heading towards losing it with some of them before the world is much older. He seems allergic to kindness — when clearly being hit on at a bar by a younger woman, he prefers to hit two men, who are presumably gay.

It’s not clear whether we’re meant to be sympathetic yet, but we’ve already seen him on a fishing boat, trying to convince his nephew that he would rather live with him than his father. It turns out the father has a heart defect and has not got long for this world. And it comes down to it, Lee Chandler (Affleck) would rather not follow through because of his Guilt about His Past.

There’s another truism about the gun over the fireplace in Act One — someone will be shot by it in Act Three. Here we are repeatedly told that the fishing boat owned by Lee’s brother and eventually to be Patrick’s (Lucas Hedges) has a dodgy engine. Sooner or later it will break down or explode — and so we are set up for the Drama — Patrick out alone on the water, unable to move the boat, either redeeming Lee’s guilt if he survives or kicking a man when he’s down if he’s a duffer.

But this is not exactly a film about redemption, even if it’s clear the characters are Catholic. Lee is damaged goods and you can understand why, but he’s more interested in putting himself through hell. His very body language speaks of being unable to express his feelings — he can barely cry, let alone hug. He cannot be helped, even when those most hurt want to reach out. The only language he can speak is violence.

Patrick, meanwhile, is an extraordinary character — bereft of a mother (although communicating with her in the quiet) and now of a father, speaking the family language in a fight at a school ice hockey practice. He has a band and at least two girlfriends — who try to set Lee up with dates — and is evidently wiser than his years. He is thrown by a cool uncle who refuses at first to set limits and even more thrown when they are imposed. We can see the cycle continuing.

And yet, no matter how sharp the film is over broken masculinity, its careful if fragmented demonstration of how the men get to be that way, I don’t think we get to understand the women in the same way. I don’t think the women have even the hope of consolation.

Michelle Williams is Lee’s ex, Randi, defined both as a mother and a killjoy, a peripheral supporting role perhaps as thankless as Brokeback Mountain. There is the sense that this might be how Jen ended up if she cleaned up her act in Dawson’s Creek and Casey is Pacey. But she is what she is through no fault of her own, whilst Lee’s sister-in-law, Elise (Gretchen Mol), is a drunk who walked out, and another killjoy. Her arc is unclear — we don’t know why she ended up the way she did. I don’t think the film really cares. I think her rôle is to tell us that redemption doesn’t make things any better.

But these worries aside, it is an impressive film, if one that will not give you what you want. I suspect it could lose twenty minutes, but again the broken arc of the films means an ending could come at any time.

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