It would be wrong to pretend that writer-director Kenneth Lonergan's new film Manchester by the Sea is easy or comfortable viewing. It is not. Its main theme is grief, and how hard it can be for an individual to banish that grief from his life. Yet for all that, this is an astonishingly life-affirming story, one that fully engages a broad range of emotions. This film has the capacity to break your heart and make you laugh - almost simultaneously. And in its lead role, playing a bereaved janitor, Casey Affleck delivers the finest acting performance on film in this past year.
He plays Lee, a quiet, solitary type who lives in Boston Massachusetts, doing odd jobs for apartment dwellers and shunning companionship as much as possible. He receives a call from his hometown (the one that gives the film its title) telling him his older brother Joe has suffered a heart attack. By the time Lee completes the 90-minute drive there, Joe has died.
It's up to Lee to settle his brother's affairs and decide on the future of his 15 year old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). This task is tougher than it might otherwise be, as his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and Patrick's mother are both estranged from the family. Lonergan's script explains the reasons for this disaffection gradually, in its own good time - and one senses ahead of time those reasons are steeped in tragedy.
Yet Manchester by the Sea is not specifically about grief and loss but more about how people cope with it. Unfolding the story from this perspective, Lonergan offers a variety of scenes, some of which are richly comic. The best of these are played out between Lee and Patrick, a likeable but headstrong teenager who deftly divides his attentions between two girl-friends and relishes giving the sullen Lee a hard time.
There is true greatness in this film. You can find it in the way Affleck suggests the conflicting, broiling emotions beneath the stony features of an apparently impassive man. It's there in the acute observations of Lonergan's writing, and his insistence that humour can make itself felt in even the most tragic of human situations. Most of us with any experience in this area could agree that life really is like this - unpredictable and contradictory.
It should also be said that there is a remarkable scene near the film's end when Lee and Randi bump into each other in town -- unexpectedly and somewhat unwillingly. They start to talk about the past they have shared, and it's utterly riveting.
If Manchester by the Sea leaves you wanting both to laugh and weep, Lonergan has surely done his job. This is fine, dramatic film-making - an extraordinary experience that feels like real life in all its complexity.