Or, What Might Be This Decade’s English Patient


Manchester by the Sea Poster

When The English Patient was rounding the awards circuit in late ‘96/early ’97, the romantic drama must have seemed like a sure bet to moviegoers. With heaps of praise and 12 Oscar nominations, it should have been an easy choice for a night at the movies. But no night out is a guaranteed winner, which is why one group of women left the theatre not moved or teary-eyed, but looking at each other saying, “Really?”

This is the story my mom tells whenever she finishes a movie that didn’t live up to high praise, especially if a large group of people consider it Oscar-worthy. Well, Mom, I may have found my own English Patient two decades later. Manchester by the Sea follows Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) as he grapples with the sudden death of his brother (Kyle Chandler) and his unexpected responsibilities as the legal guardian of his nephew (Lucas Hedges). But stepping up during this family crisis means confronting his past in his hometown of Manchester, Massachusetts, including his ex-wife (Michelle Williams) and the the circumstances of their agonizing breakup.

Though it’s too early to say whether or not Manchester’s Sundance and Toronto buzz will amount to any awards, I was baffled by the standing ovation as the credits rolled at the St. Louis International Film Festival. This is the movie that sold out weeks ago in the festival lineup?

Director Kenneth Lonergan seems to want to ask big questions, but instead, I’m distracted by ones about minutiae.

That’s not to say the film doesn’t have bright moments. The performers feel as natural as if you were in the room with them. Williams brings an aching intensity that stands out even with short screen time, and for a film centered on tragedy, the sarcastic bombs Hedges drops are the bit of chaotic release a story like this needs. The sound editing is impossible to ignore, too. We hear every chair sliding out from under the table and every crunch on the pavement, and with the limited use of music, this all feels like the intentional echoes of grief.

Kyle Chandler and Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea

But that’s all this movie amounts to: a few strong moments with a lot of long, bitter, chilly spaces in between. The lengthy pauses in conversations about everyday matters like plumbing and scheduling contribute to the realism, but also to inefficient storytelling. Because it takes some time to reach our inciting incident, it takes some time to adjust to this icy-slow world. I was never sure what resolution or deadline we were seeking, and I felt very little for a plot so devastating.

Even more frustrating: the more time we spend in this meandering narrative, the more the characters seem to settle into clichés. Male characters can’t move past their emotional stunting, while women distract them with inconvenient nagging. To be fair, the main characters manage to climb up out of these tired archetypes, but many of the supporting roles never do.

Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea

The attention to detail of the sound design didn’t seem to carry over to the cinematography, blocking, and character choices, either. Why was this character in this scene if she contributed so little? Why could we barely see this character’s face? How is this person connected to the others? And why did this movie include such a waste of a Matthew Broderick cameo? Director Kenneth Lonergan seems to want to ask big questions, but instead, I’m distracted by ones about minutiae.

Perhaps Manchester has more redeeming qualities than The English Patient—in all honesty, I’ve avoided that picture because of a lifetime of negative reviews. But heaps of praise on a movie that felt like a slog through the snow? To that, I say, “Really?