High drama as angry man on the run from past gets a nasty surprise
* Manchester by the Sea (15A, 137mins), 5 Stars
* Live by Night (15A, 129mins), 3 Stars
* Underworld: Blood Wars (16, 91mins), 2 Stars
Kenneth Lonergan's last film, Margaret, spent so long in post-production that two of its executive producers - Sydney Pollack, Anthony Minghella - had died by the time it came out. A dispute over its cut lasted six long years, but happily no such mishaps have befallen Manchester by the Sea, a beautiful, melancholy, slow-moving drama that deserves all the awards attention it's getting. Casey Affleck is Lee Chandler, a quiet man who's working as a janitor in Boston when he gets a devastating call.
His elder brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler) has had a heart attack, and though Lee races back to their home-town of Manchester-by-the-Sea, Joe dies before he gets there. It's clear that Lee doesn't want to spend a second longer than he has to in the windblown, clapboard town, but he's in for a nasty shock. His brother has named Lee guardian of his teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hodges), meaning he's expected to stick around until he reaches his majority. This prospect seems to horrify Lee, and slowly, through a series of dreamy and devastating flashbacks, we find out why.
The tone of Manchester by the Sea is wistful, elegiac, and the sights and sounds of an Atlantic fishing town are beautifully captured by the muted cinematography of Jody Lee Lipes. But there are moments of high drama, even comedy, and the ensemble acting is magnificent. Michelle Williams catches the eye as Lee's shaken-looking ex-wife, but this is Affleck's film, and he's superb as a kind of latter-day Job.
Casey's elder brother releases a new film this week too. Live by Night is based on a Denis Lehane novel and inspired by Ben Affleck's love of classic Warners' gangster films. The studio pumped them out like doughnuts in the 1930s, and the best combined a vulgar tabloid energy with fierce narrative drive.
Live by Night starts out like it means business, then shoots off in 12 directions during a messy second half. Affleck, who also directs, is Joe Coughlin, a US marine who returns home to Boston from the Great War, angry and disillusioned. He starts robbing banks and poker games, but after entering the orbit of an Italian mobster, heads to Florida to become a big-time bootlegger.
The early scenes have a certain gritty intensity, but once Coughlin heads south the film loses focus, and Affleck is cast adrift as the only three-dimensional character.
Even he looks blank and glassy-eyed, almost as though he'd forgotten to direct himself, and Brendan Gleeson steals the show in his brief scenes as Coughlin's dad.
As she reminded us so brilliantly last summer in Whit Stillman's period drama Love and Friendship, Kate Beckinsale is a very fine actress indeed. But in Underworld: Blood Wars she returns to the genre that made her famous.
In the early 2000s, thanks to films like Van Helsing and the Underworld franchise, Beckinsale became a steam-punk horror diva, cutting a dash in leather and fangs and looking good enough to wake the dead.
In this (heavy sigh), the fifth Underworld adventure, she reprises the role of Selena, a vampire warrior who leads the charge in a centuries-long war with a tribe of taciturn werewolves, the Lycans. In the last film, Selena made an enemy of the vampire council, but in Underworld: Blood Wars she's told that all is forgiven as her help is needed to defeat a dangerous new enemy.
Is it a trap? What do you think, and this is a film abounding with villains, most memorably Lara Pulver's dominatrix vampire princess Semira. The plot is bog-standard and the dialogue has Shakespearean aspirations that are destined to be cruelly dashed. Beckinsale strides through this mess aloof and indifferent, wearing a leather jumpsuit so tight you can practically see the outline of her liver through it. She deserves better, and looks like she knows it.