You can’t turn the clock back

I’ve watched a lot of films over the past 48 hours – five to be exact. All of them had their appeal, but only one of them has been haunting me. Now lying in a strange hotel room in Brisbane, when I should be catching up on sleep after flying half way around the world, flashbacks and snippets from the story keep flooding back… I suppose that means it was a ‘good’ film.

Crunched into an aeroplane seat for more than 24 hours, I found myself watching a string of movies. Faced with so much choice I picked:

  • a cartoon, because I like the music
  • a thriller because the story is clever
  • a comedy because I wanted to smile
  • a family film because I love sailing and the Lake District
  • and finally a film that I thought might be a sort of romantic drama… it wasn’t.

But it was this particular film that has kept me awake since I landed.

‘Manchester by the sea’ caught my eye a few weeks ago when I mused over the poster promoting the film on the station platform. There was a man standing by the water, with boats in the background looking at a girl. That’s a strange title, I’d thought, at the same time saying to myself, but Manchester’s not by the sea! This particular Manchester is a fishing town in America where the story is set. I won’t give away the tale, although it’s nothing complex or particularly mysterious. In fact I almost decided to stop it more than once because it felt quite slow and I wasn’t particularly enjoying it… it’s hard to enjoy watching someone suffer and becoming almost robotic with the pain that’s buried so deeply no one sees it.

When bad things happen and something or someone hurts us, it’s a natural defence to shut up tight like a shell and block out all the painful emotions so that we can’t be hurt anymore. Grief can do that to us and so can loss or rejection. Guilt can also tie us up in internal knots. But grief and guilt together seem to be a cocktail of emotions that have the potential to destroy someone.

I suppose no one would want to watch ‘Manchester by the sea’ if you told them it was all about guilt and grief – it wouldn’t sell cinema tickets. If you do watch it, you may not feel ‘good’, but you will be made to think. The very ordinariness of the story, the day-to-day plain boringness of life from fixing blocked toilets to shopping for food and fishing, is part of what gives this film its power. It’s an honest, down to earth, depiction of what happens to someone after a terrible tragedy…no more than that, after a devastating accident.

We never really know what’s going on behind someone’s expression – their real thoughts and feelings can be completely hidden. And the film shows that the way someone reacts, whether it’s blanking out emotion or picking a fight, can mask internal battles raging just below the surface. It’s what the director has left out that is most effective. The dialogue is sometimes sparse and there are those very real moments when people speak over one another and stumble in trying to say what they mean. There are awkward silences and clumsy hugs for the moments when there simply are no words.

If you do go and watch it – be prepared to be haunted by the face of a man who wishes every day he could turn back the clock and do one thing differently.

manchester-by-the-sea

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