Finally, two new films to shout about.

Manchester by the Sea.

Manchester by the Sea.

In her revealing profile of Kenneth Lonergan in the New Yorker here, Rebecca Mead charts the travails that Lonergan went through with his second feature Margaret. Not withstanding her entirely sympathetic portrait, one of the fascinating insights to emerge is that, at least to some degree, those wounds were partially self-inflicted.

Certainly his debut You Can Count On Me was one of the most impressive films to come out of America in the last couple of decades. And not withstanding the wrangling over its length, his follow up Margaret, reviewed earlier here, was if anything an improvement on that debut. But when it came to delivering that contentious final cut of Margaret, he seems to have burrowed himself ever deeper into a hole largely if tragically of his own making.

The Brilliant You Can Count on Me.

The brilliant You Can Count on Me.

There’s evidently a stubbornness and a prickly recalcitrance to his character that’s quietly at war with his fiery intelligence and the profound sense of empathy that he has for other people and, therefore, with the characters that he ends up creating on the page. It’s in this sense that his third film, Manchester by the Sea is so clearly an autobiographical one. It’s not so much the story that he tells that is so manifestly his, rather it is the mood created that so perfectly captures that inner tension.

Casey Affleck plays Lee, who has bottled up whatever it was that happened to him in his past so tightly he’s become immune to life itself. When a tragic event sends him back home to the Manchester of the title, he has no choice other than to face up to his past.

What Lonergan does so brilliantly is to stay with his characters as they go about the mundane, day to day chores that have to be gone through whenever any of us have to deal with a tragic event. What makes this all the more excruciating is that of all the people who have to deal with those kind of things, Lee is the least capable, and the most in need of help. Which is the one thing he’s incapable of asking for.

Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea.

Casey Affleck, who’s a revelation, and the excellent Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea.

It would be misleading to pretend that, at times, this were not a profoundly depressing film. But its brilliance lies precisely in its refusal to turn what seems like an impossible situation around and to tie up all the various narrative strands. In life as we live it, some things are impossible to move beyond. And those stories don’t end, they rumble on for the rest of our lives.

Loving is the sixth feature from Jeff Nichols and after the atmospheric Take Shelter (2011) and Mud (2012), he made the disappointingly conventional Midnight Special. The latter seemed to strain for the sort of Spielbergian grandeur that Hollywood and its accountants are so in awe of. This film, happily, would appear to a conscious effort to produce an antidote to that sort of emotional incontinence.

Jeff Nicholas Loving.

Jeff Nichol’s Loving.

As a based-on-a-true-story tale of a white man’s insistence on marrying the black girl of his dreams in the 1950s, in the southern state of Virginia, it’s the sort of story that could have been ruined had it been saddled with the traditional Hollywood treatment. In contrast, Nichols is consciously restrained throughout, and he refuses to punctuate every emotional expression with a musical outburst, quietly letting the facts speak for themselves.

And, as with Manchester by the Sea, he too takes his cue from classical Greek drama, so that most of the pivotal action happens off stage, including even the climatic court scene when the laws prohibiting interracial marriage are finally overturned.

Ruth Nega in Loving.

Ruth Negga, who gives a powerful performance in Loving.

Instead of which, he focuses on the reactions of the protagonists to the events that have unfolded off screen. And there can be few scenes more moving than when Ruth Negga gets the phone call informing her that, somewhere in the vast bureaucracy of the United States government, someone was finally responding to her many letters pleading desperately for help.

Some have complained that this distanced view renders the film cool or even cold. But as Manohla Dargis writes in her excellent New York Times review here, it’s precisely this quiet distance that gives the film its emotional punch. You can see the trailer to Loving here, and the trailer to Manchester by the Sea here.

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Kenneth Lonergan’s new film “Margaret” a rare gem.

Kenneth Lonergan moved from the theatre into the cinema in 2000 with You Can Count On Me. One of the memorable films of the decade, it seemed to hark back to a bygone era when some of the most thought-provoking and challenging drama came from independent films produced in the U.S.

But by then, all the interesting people working in cinema had begun moving into television. Everyone it seems except Lonergan. But as brilliant a drama as You Can Count On Me is – and it really is – it isn’t actually cinema. It’s essentially filmed drama.

The good news is that Lonergan has learnt, and learnt substantially from that first effort. What we have in Margaret (see the trailer here) is a big bold and glorious piece designed for the silver screen. The bad news is that it was shot it in 2005 and it’s only now that it’s finally seeing the light.

You Can Count On Me.

You Can Count On Me.

Nine times out of ten, when a film is held up like that in post it’s almost always because it reeks to high heaven. This happily is one of those rare exceptions. You can read all about what happened here in Joel Lovell’s excellent piece in the NY Times. But what it seems to boil down to is, Lonergan couldn’t bring himself to edit it down to a conventional length, and the whole thing ended up in court.

Which is hugely disappointing, because for its first two hours Margaret is flawless. And though it does begin to sag somewhat in its third and final hour, it’s still one of the best and most memorable films for many a moon.

Lisa is the precocious, pretty Jewish 17 year old ensconced in her privileged enclave in New York, convinced that the world revolves around her – which, of course, in real life it would. Anna Paquin is brilliant as the intellectually vibrant but confused and inchoate lead in a world we’re all familiar with from Woody Allen at his prime.

A Separation.

A Separation.

Very few of the story’s ironies though are played for laughs here. There’s even a scene in which a theatre actress complains about how pretentious people who go to the opera are, which isn’t meant to be funny. So we find ourselves peering into the lives of legitimately articulate, introspective people prone to existential angst, trying to come to terms with the world they live in against the backdrop of a skyline devastated by events beyond their control.

The film only loses it way ever so slightly when we leave her classmates in the final hour to focus on the legal battle that she becomes embroiled in. It’s reasonably obvious where that was all going to end up, and some of those later scenes could comfortably have been pruned. If you want to see how that much story is handled much more frugally, you only have to have a look at the wonderful A Separation (reviewed earlier here)

Anna Paquin and Bennn

Anna Paquin and Matt Damon in Margaret.

But this is but a minor quibble. This is a serious film and major work from one of the most exciting individuals working in the medium. If he can marry the discipline of his writing from You Can Count On Me (see the trailer here), which he can and does for most of Margaret, with the visual panache and sonic invention of the latter, that will be a sight to behold.

Have a look at the interview he gave with Richard Brody in the New Yorker here.

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