26 Jan 2017

Why Casey Affleck’s alleged misdeeds matter when watching Manchester by the Sea

12:33 pm on 26 January 2017

The film and its performances are undeniably excellent. So why doesn’t Manchester by the Sea’s star deserve an Oscar?

Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea.

Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea. Photo: Supplied

Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea.

Photo: Supplied

In an awards season with few clear front runners, Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan’s family drama about bereavement and grief in a picturesque New England town, is agreed to be one of the season’s strongest. Casey Affleck’s lead performance in particular has been praised as a career best and long coming triumph for an underrated, underdog performer.

It’s not hard to see why: Affleck is excellent. Yet when his Academy Awards nomination was announced this week, the reaction was not met with the excitement one might expect.

Manchester by the Sea began life as a project between Lonergan and Margaret collaborator Matt Damon, who originally planned to star and direct with Lonergan responsible for the screenplay. When Damon’s schedule filled up, however, he dropped out of both roles leaving Lonergan as writer-director and the film without a star. And so Damon did what good boys do: he did a buddy a favour, and gave the part to longtime best pal Ben’s brother Casey Affleck.

Affleck is Lee, a reticent janitor for a Boston apartment complex who is forced to return to his hometown of Manchester when his brother dies and leaves him with guardianship of his 16 year old nephew.

So far so Raising Helen.

But this isn’t the straightforward redemption-by-sudden-parenthood story it might seem - Lee, we find out, is dealing with way worse shit than some vague stunted coming of age. A slowburn drama with occasional black humour, Lonergan knows exactly when to twist the knife, wringing each and every scene emotionally dry.

At times it is overwrought but it works, and even slow motion scenes set to a melodramatic orchestral score do not undermine the careful and subtle pace and refreshingly nuanced conclusion. Performances by the supporting cast are also excellent, particularly by Lucas Hedges as the bereaved nephew and Michelle Williams who, as Lee’s estranged ex-wife, is sadly underused.

Yet, in spite of all this, the matter of multiple serious sexual harassment allegations made against Affleck by former female colleagues hang over the film like a dark cloud.

When it came to light recently that Affleck, in his capacity as director of widely panned 2010 mockumentary I’m Still Here, allegedly sexually harassed and tormented both a producer and a female director of photography until both women walked off the project and filed lawsuits, it seemed that, like Nate Parker, before him Affleck’s acclaim would be dashed. Not so. Ultimately settled out of court for an undisclosed sum, Affleck has dismissed the allegations and they have fallen by the wayside as critics fawn over his work.

When apologists defend the likes of Woody Allen or Roman Polanski, the suggestion is often that art and life can and should be separate, that the personal and the professional should not intersect. Affleck’s alleged misdeeds, one might think, could be a test of this logic as it was in a professional capacity that he made women under his employ feel humiliated, degraded and unsafe. Yet here he is, accepting a Golden Globe and firmly in the running for an Academy Award.

Affleck was handed the role of a lifetime on a silver platter, by virtue of his place in one of the most enduring boys clubs of modern Hollywood and will no doubt fare well on the awards circuit. Yet any acclaim Manchester by the Sea receives is tainted by what it represents: the continued ability of the film industry’s most powerful figures to look the other way.

As actress Constance Wu pointed out when the news of Affleck's nomination broke, the relationship between the star’s actions and his art should not be ignored: his likely victory will only contradict and devalue the real human experience that a film like Manchester by the Sea attempts to illuminate.

Manchester by the Sea is a harrowing and entirely effective study of grief, trauma and despair. But given the allegations that women in real life may have experienced these emotions at the hands of its star, its potency is diluted and, as one should feel after a truly excellent cinematic experience, it is hard to feel truly glad the film was made.