"Manchester, so much to answer for."
From a British perspective, one of the most striking aspects of Lonergan’s film is the title. Manchester has never been and never will by the sea. It’s hard to know whether the American director has chosen the title as an ironic nod to the original Mancunians or not. What is notable is the names of the small towns which are thanked in the credits. Richmond, Gloucester, Essex, etc. All stout English names. Which reflects the fact that this is an implacably Anglo-Saxon film. It doesn’t even have the Gaelic tinge which many north-east coast US films do. (cf Casey Affleck’s brother’s oeuvre, not to mention The Departed etc). However many years ago, disenfranchised dreamers from Britain landed on this shore, and set about constructing an immigrant’s version of the old world. The names didn’t change all that much. The question is: did the values?
This is all the more prescient because one can’t help thinking that the world Lonergan portrays feels like Trump-world. It’s introspective, small-town and tainted by prejudice. Casey Affleck’s character, Lee Chandler, is blackballed by the community for his supposed role in his children’s death. No-one will give him a job and in the end it’s completely understandable why he has to leave. No matter that Lonergan seeks and succeeds in wresting a cathartic narrative out of Lee’s misfortunes; that which underpins it, besides an act of god, is the local community’s almost complete lack of empathy. Manchester-by-the-Sea is far closer to The Crucible than Little House on the Prairie or Our Town. There are also echoes of Vinterberg’s The Hunt, even if Lonergan is interested in creating a redemptive narrative, rather than a condemnatory one. At heart, Lonergan would appear to be a sentimental soul, seeking to find shards of hope within the harshness of the universe and the societies his characters inhabit.
The complexities of the film make it richer. Affleck’s protagonist has no shortage of flaws. He’s given a classical journey to go on and that journey is meticulously laid out. It is a cinematic masterclass, to the point of cliche, in the art of the character arc. However, what makes Manchester-by-the-Sea special is that it does more than this. It creates a portrayal of contemporary US society which is poised in the balance between kindness and cruelty. A Morrisey-esque dichotomy. Which way will the respective Anglo-Saxon worlds tip? Will there be space for the Lee Chandlers of this world, the damaged survivors? Or will they be driven out?