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Tuesday 24 January 2017

Manchester by the Sea, Film USA 2016, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, 9* out of 10

Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester-by-the-Sea is a beautifully written, directed and acted family drama. It is a deeply moving high quality film, with an outstanding performance by Casey Affleck in the main role surrounded by an excellent acting ensemble. Careful choice of music and the beautiful photography do the rest.     

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) works as a janitor in Boston where he lives by himself in modest circumstances, doing his work and trying to keep the demons of the past buried deep inside. His elder brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has brought up a now sixteen-year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) mostly as a single dad after a separation from his alcoholic wife Elise (Gretchen Moll). After a not unexpected but difficult loss, a task set him by his brother will severely test Lee and the relationship between uncle and nephew. 

Manchester-by-the-Sea is a beautifully written and directed family drama. One of its strength is that it eschews many of the easy answers and clichés. One instance of this is the portrayal of teenagers sometimes behaving more maturely and supportively than grown-ups is one example of this. The powerful performances by the entire acting ensemble are led by an outstanding pained, passive aggressive Casey Affleck and marvellous supporting performances notably by Michelle Williams (as Lee’s ex-wife Randi).  Flashbacks are built in to the flow of the story effectively without being disruptive or seeming contrived. 

The contrast between the calm serenity of the town of Manchester in Massachusetts (filmed on location Manchester-by-the –Sea, as well as the neighbouring towns of Rockport, Gloucester, Essex and Beverley) and the inner turmoil of the protagonists is underlined by the score which includes a beautiful original chorale by the Canadian composer Lesley Barber and classical pieces by Georg Friedrich Händel and Tomaso Albinoni. The photography is beautiful. 

The movie theatre in Paris, where I saw this film was packed; all of us left this film deeply moved. Highly recommended.  

Saturday 7 January 2017

United States of Love (Zjednoczone stany miłości) , Film, Poland 2015, written and directed by Tomasz Wasilewski, 8* out of 10

United States of Love masterfully presents a slow-moving, beautifully acted drama of women in pursuit of women’s sexual obsession, desire and love. Great direction and photography capture a personal sadness in an atmosphere of hopeful political departure. Be warned though: if you do not leave the cinema depressed after seeing this movie, you must have been ingesting something very special before you sat down to watch it.   

Poland in 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Politically, things seem possible, that no one had dared to dream of only a short time ago. While trust in existing institutions and conventions is collapsing, every day-life continues. Yet, for the four women who are protagonists in Tomasz Wasilewski’s film the political and social atmosphere of departure gives the impetus to follow desires that lay deep within them, perhaps dormant but certainly unpursued until now. Agata (Julia Kijowska) caught in a marriage that has become unhappy for her is obsessed with the young, attractive roman-catholic priest, who teaches her teenage daughter. The respected head-teacher Iza (Magdalena Cielecka) has a long-standing secret affair with a physician who is the father of one of her pupils. When his wife dies, she is sure that her love for him will turn into a happy marriage. But the ruthless doctor has other ideas. Iza’s sister, Marzena (Marta Niradkiewicz), a former beauty-queen, is waiting for the return of her husband from Germany - or to be called to join him. Marzena’s neighbour, Renata (Dorta Kolak), a teacher at Iza’s school, meanwhile finds the courage to pursue the crush she has had on Marzena ever since she laid eyes on her.

Against a bleak and hopeless architectural, meteorological background and faced by men that range from baffled (and tepid) via clueless (and cold) to brutal (and icy), the women in United States of Love, are made to suffer relentlessly. In all the scenes in which a priest appears he speaks of the centrality of love, its beauty its importance, its heavenliness. But in key-scene a student raises his hand and asks the priest: “And, have you ever had sex?”.  

At the heart of United States of Love there is a striking contrast between the idealized love praised by the men of the church and the abject failure of the attempts at the pursuit of earthly love with men by intelligent, practical women. It is this contrast and the tension between political optimism and personal misery which make this fittingly slow-moving drama both impactful and deeply depressing. 

Direction, photography and the understated form, in which the excellent acting performances, none of them stronger than Magdalena Ciliecka’s, are captured, all reinforce the tragedy of women’s disappointments when it comes to living their love, desires and obsessions. 

United States of Love won the prize for best screenplay at the Berlin Film Festival, but if you’re looking for any light relief in adversity, you won’t find it here.