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MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

Producer: Matt Damon, Kimberly Steward, Chris Moore, Lauren Beck and Kevin J. Walsh
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Writer: Kenneth Lonergan
Stars: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges, C.J. Wilson, Heather Burns, Tate Donovan, Gretchen Mol, Matthew Broderick, Josh Hamilton and Anna Baryshnikov
Studio: Roadside Attractions

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If ever proof were needed that it’s not the story, but the way in which it’s told, that matters, “Manchester by the Sea” provides it. The basic premise—about an irresponsible man who suddenly finds himself saddled with the task of looking after a youngster—is one that’s been used innumerable times, in fare ranging from syrupy Hallmark Hall of Fame-style tearjerkers to lousy comedies like Adam Sandler’s “Big Daddy.” Playwright Kenneth Lonergan’s third film—the first since “Margaret,” which was tied up for years in legal wrangles over the final cut before it got a limited release in 2011—differs from them all. In the hands of Lonergan and his exceptional cast, the deceptively simple story becomes a shattering tale of shared grief that carries a powerful weight of emotional truth. With all due respect to “You Can Count On Me” and “Margaret” (which was extraordinarily rich even in its compromised form), this is not only his best film, but one of the year’s best as well.

Lonergan constructs the film like a puzzle, shifting from present to past and back again to reveal, gradually, the whole picture. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is introduced as a quietly sullen Boston maintenance man, who goes about his task of servicing several apartment buildings with a dogged efficiency broken only when he encounters any hint of complaint from a tenant. His tendency to break his usual laconic manner and abruptly lash out continues into his off hours, which he ordinarily spends alone in bars, nursing a beer: sometimes he’ll get into a fight over some perceived slight from another patron.

As flashbacks show, however, Lee was once a reasonably happy fellow in upstate Manchester, having an agreeable time with his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) and his young son Patrick (Ben O’Brien) on their boat, drinking with pals in the basement converted into a rec room, getting cozy with his wife Randi (Michelle Williams), doting on their young kids. They also reveal that though still a young man, Joe was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, a fact that led his high-string wife Elise (Gretchen Mol) to abandon him and their son. It’s not until the film is nearly at the half-way point, however, that we’re told—in a flashback of heartbreaking understatement—how Lee’s life came crashing down and why he is now so damaged.

Until that sequence Lonergan concentrates on the new tragedy Lee has to face—Joe’s sudden collapse, which forces him to drive up from Boston to the Manchester hospital. There he finds that his brother has died, and that he must tell Patrick (Lucas Hedges), now a rambunctious teen, of his father’s passing. Once again Lonergan stages the scene with remarkable sensitivity, from across an ice rink where the boy is practicing with his hockey team, as though it were a family matter on which it would be unseemly to intrude.

Patrick will react to the news with youthful bravado, going on with his usual activities—balancing two girlfriends, practicing with his bad rock band, arguing over “Star Wars” minutiae with his friends—while accompanying Lee in making arrangements for the funeral. But a major shock comes when they visit the lawyer’s office and learn that Joe has named Lee as the boy’s legal guardian. It’s a responsibility Lee feels totally incapable of assuming, and Patrick is no happier with the idea of having to leave town for Boston.

At this point one might expect “Manchester by the Sea” to devolve into a story of redemption, as Lee and Patrick are both saved by bonding with one another. But Lonergan is too acute an observer of life to go that route; he knows that there are wounds that cannot be so easily healed. That becomes clear when Patrick visits Elise, the mother he hasn’t seen in years, and her new husband (Matthew Broderick), hoping they might take him in, and even more so when Lee encounters Randi on the street, the baby she’s had with her second husband in a carriage, and they have a conversation of a sort that’s a small masterpiece of writing, direction and acting. The best one can expect, the film suggests, is a series of compromises—not the sort of message designed to warm the heart, perhaps, but one that’s real rather than fabricated.

The power of “Manchester by the Sea” rests on Lonergan’s script and direction, but their promise is realized by an extraordinary cast. Affleck is the anchor. His characteristic restraint and reticence can sometimes seem a drawback, but in this case they fit the character of Lee perfectly, creating a figure of apparent mildness that conceals both abiding sadness and coiled intensity. It’s an unforgettable turn. He’s matched by Hedges, who captures the combination of heedless energy and submerged apprehension that marks so many teens. Williams has less of an opportunity to shine, but her final scene alone creates an indelible impression. Chandler’s regular-guy persona also stands out, and Mol and Broderick play out their lunch sequence with the requisite stiffness. Mention should also be made of the sense of place achieved by the technical team—production designer Ruth De Jong, art director Jourdan Henderson, set decorator Florencia Martin and costume designer Melissa Toth; they fashion a totally lived-in ambience that cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes exploits—along with the gritty locations—to the full.

Some might quibble about Jennifer Lame’s editing or the music selections by Linda Cohen that accompany Lesley Barber’s original score. But the abrupt shifts in time are part of Lonergan’s narrative strategy, and one quickly accustoms oneself to them. And while Albinoni’s “Adagio” might seem an unfortunate choice, given its overuse elsewhere, it fits, as do the other music cuts.

It might seem from all this that the “Manchester by the Sea” is a downer of the first order, but it’s not. Lonergan leavens the darkness with a good deal of offhanded humor, once again of the sort that reflects how people like these really act and talk, elements that arise naturally out of the situations rather than out of the conventions of situation comedy. You leave the film not depressed but impressed by its clear-eyed honesty about characters who suffer terrible tragedies they must somehow learn to deal with.

Pauline Kael wrote about another film, “I’m a little afraid to say how good I think ‘Shoot the Moon’ is—I don’t want to set up the kind of bad magic that might cause people to say that they were led to expect so much that they were disappointed.” Critics are often faced with that possibility, and it certainly did work against “Shoot the Moon,” and more recently against “Boyhood.” So let’s end with something more low-key: “Manchester by the Sea” is as good as Angelina Jolie’s “By the Sea” was bad. If you’ve seen her film, you’ll know that’s high praise.

LOVE & FRIENDSHIP

Producer: Katie Holly, Lauranne Bourrachot and Whit Stillman
Director: Whit Stillman
Writer: Whit Stillman
Stars: Kate Beckinsale, Xavier Samuel, Morfydd Clark, Emma Greenwell, Tom Bennett, James Fleet, Jemma Redgrave, Justin Edwards, Jenn Murray, Stephen Fry and Chloe Sevigny
Studio: Roadside Attractions/Amazon Studios

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A Jane Austen adaptation is always welcome—so long as it doesn’t involve zombies—but “Love & Friendship” proves especially engaging. Partially that’s because it represents a work that’s not been done as a film before—the early novella “Lady Susan,” probably written around 1794 but not published until long after the author’s death. (It appears under a title borrowed from another of Austen’s juvenilia.) But mostly it’s because the story of a manipulative eighteenth-century widow arranging good matches for both her daughter and herself has been so winningly, and wittily, brought to the screen by writer-director Whit Stillman and a superbly chosen cast.

Stillman is known for the verbal sophistication of his films, which have been all too rare, but until now they’ve been situated in modern settings. This one proves that his style is perfectly attuned to the late eighteenth century, when the book was written, and especially to imagination of the young Austen. This isn’t a slavish adaptation: though characters frequently compose and read letters, Austen’s epistolary format can’t be simply transferred to the screen, and the book’s unfinished character necessitated imaginative sprucing and finessing. The marvel is that the result is so finely gauged that most viewers will find it difficult, if not impossible, to discern where Austen stops and Stillman begins; some of the best lines are hers, but others are his. Rarely has the fit between author and adapter felt so marvelously right.

Kate Beckinsale is the lady in question, whom we meet as she departs the stately home that she, as an impecunious widow, has lately visited, leaving furious women and despondent men in her wake. Looking for a logical place to stay, she and her devoted attendant make their way to the rural estate of Churchill, to spend time with her accommodating brother Charles (Justin Edwards) and his wife Catherine (Emma Greenwell), who welcomes Susan with appropriate gentility but is deeply suspicious of her plans, which—in asides that are very helpful to us—she shares with her confidant, the equally duplicitous Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny), here transformed into an American with a very perceptive husband (Stephen Fry).

Catherine’s concerns are validated when her shrewd guest casts her net for Catherine’s visiting brother Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel), a handsome young fellow who falls for her charms even though his sister—along with his mother (Jemma Redgrave) and father (James Fleet)—express deep concerns about a possible union between them. But their intervention is hardly decisive; what shatters the smooth operation of Lady Susan’s plan is the sudden arrival of her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark), who’s been expelled from her exclusive boarding school. Everyone seems to take an interest in the lovely, shy, and eminently marriageable Frederica’s future, including Reginald.

That leads her mother to invite to Churchill Stillman’s most inspired addition to the assemblage there, Sir James Martin, alluded to only indirectly in the book but here embodied to hilarious perfection by Tom Bennett. Martin is exquisitely dense and utterly oblivious of his own imbecility; his idiotic remarks leave all around him—save the endlessly tolerant Charles—standing in stupefied silence as he grins shamelessly in their direction. He even transforms some dinner conversation involving a plateful of peas into the most amusing cinematic treatment of that vegetable since James Mason and Christopher Plummer dealt with the subject in “Murder by Decree.”

If Bennett makes an unparalleled stooge, however, he certainly doesn’t steal the movie so long as the deliciously haughty Beckinsale is around. Dropping a stream of icily mordant observations with only the slightest arch of an eyebrow, she dominates the picture while leaving space for the fine supporting cast to shine even in her shadow. Samuel casts an especially fine figure as Reginald, but Edwards isn’t far behind as eager-to-please Charles, and Clark, Sevigny, Greenwell, Fleet and Redgrave all have their moments. The sole regret is that Fry, who seems born to this Austen-Stillman world, gets little more than a cameo.

Shot mostly on Irish locations, “Love and Friendship” (a title borrowed from another of Austen’s early works) was clearly made on a limited budget, but the period detail in the physical production is nevertheless highly satisfying. Anna Rackard’s production design, Louise Mathews’ art direction and Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaugh’s costumes are all top-drawer, and Richard von Oosterhout’s cinematography gives appropriate luster to the compositions. The images are beautifully complemented by Benjamin Esdraffo and Mark Suozzo’s subtle score, which makes way for as well-chosen a parade of classical snippets as the one Kubrick selected for “Barry Lyndon.”

“Love & Friendship” will appeal to Austenites, of course, but anyone who appreciates a sophisticated, witty comedy of manners should seek it out. You won’t be disappointed.