After a prolonged battle with Hollywood powers over his last film, Margaret, playwright-screenwriter-director Kenneth Lonergan returns to the screen with Manchester by the Sea. Hollywood ways and theatre ways of working do not jibe, and Lonergan, in the Margaret battle, became a pronounced victim of the film world’s power tactics. Lonergan is a playwright in the best sense of the word: he is fundamentally concerned with the soul’s struggles.
His new film features a janitor named Lee Chandler, played by Casey Affleck. Lee’s adolescent nephew, who has lost his father and been abandoned by his alcoholic mother, needs him as a guardian. Returning to his native town, Manchester by the Sea, Lee also encounters his ex-wife, played by Michelle Williams. The Williams character, despite being remarried, is still in love with him.
But at the frozen core of this story is anguish and guilt over an event that occurred years earlier. Because of his guilt, Lee cannot remain as guardian for his nephew. Nor can he come to terms with his ex-wife, or get involved with other women. He is stuck.
It seems fundamental to plays and movies that they deal with characters who change. Those changes, or turns in the story, seem essential to the dramatic work.
Is Manchester by the Sea any the worse for centering on a stuck character? The film has many of the hallmarks of a good, even great, movie. Its acting, led by Affleck and Williams, is outstanding. Its use of visuals, showing the sea town of Manchester, is top quality. It is a story honestly and skillfully told.
Nevertheless, in art as in life, we hope that people will learn from their tragedies and continue their journeys as humans.