Manchester by the Sea is a film that follows a depressed lonely man, Lee Chandler, who is summoned back to his hometown after the death of his brother. The film begins with Lee’s daily life, a janitor who seems to hate his job. He seems to drink often and likes to party. One night, after partying with his friends until 2 AM, Lee leaves to go get more beer. He comes back to his house on fire and his children dead inside of the burning house. Soon after, he receives news of his brother’s death. The film examines the struggles of Lee, his inability to forgive himself for the death of his children, and the grievance of losing love ones so close together. His brother has made him legal guardian of his niece, Patrick, in which Lee experiences the struggles of raising a teenage boy. The film is an extremely dark depressing movie that examines multiple human conditions such as battling with death, forgiveness, depression, and grief.
The lighting in this film plays a vital role in establishing the moods and themes throughout the film. The tone of the film is stressful, dark, and somber. The film is lit extremely dark and shadows are often casted over the character’s faces. As Lee battles his demons, shadows over his face are used to convey his agony and grief. One scene that exemplifies this is when Lee’s house burns down. The lighting in the first half of the scene is natural light coming from the fire and police lights.
This is a neat lighting affect to help dramatize the scene. The light is mainly from the fire and it flickers over the people’s faces, creating a sense of realism to what is occurring. Realism is an important theme found out throughout this film which is why the film has such a desolate mood. The lighting of the fire and lights on the character’s faces resembles that style of film taking place.
The scene transitions into the morning after where Lee is standing over the remains of the burned down house. He watches the fire fighters pull his kids out in body bags. The lighting here is very distinct and important, its not natural lighting at all. A shadow is being casted over Lee’s faces where you can barely see his eyes. There are no words during this scene, so just the music and lighting are there to display Lee’s emotions.
Certain pivotal moments in the film break away from the realism style of lighting, and focus more on the aesthetic purpose of light. In the screenshot above, the audience can see the heavy shadow casted over the right side of Lee’s face. During the scene, he tilts his head into the shadow so his whole face is covered in darkness. The purpose of this is to show the depression setting in over Lee. Lee was responsible for the death of his children and he is shock. The hard lighting on his face is foreshadowing the grief that follows Lee around for the rest of the film.
From a technical standpoint, the lighting instrument had to have been place to the left of the camera and above the character. It is somewhat resembling sunlight with the shadows forming from a light source coming from above and to the right of their faces. The position of the light had to have been close to Lee, as it is very hard on his face.
During the funeral scene, a different lighting technique is used. Instead of hard light being displayed, which the film could have done since it was a funeral, it displays soft lighting. Lee actually looks clean and groomed during this scene in comparison to his ragged appearance found throughout the film. Somewhat of a mix between soft lighting and a silhouette is created while they are sitting down listening to the service. The film uses the soft lighting affect to define the characters and their situation. Patrick and Lee are sitting in a church for the funeral service of the brother/father and the lighting is used to emphasize this.
The silhouette creates the glow that outlines the dimensions of Lee’s facing, showing the weight the characters carries in the film. It makes the audience focus on Lee in the scene. Lee had been making a ton of arrangements for the service and funeral, so it is somewhat of a relief for him that the service is finally occurring. The glow created in the church also plays an effect of “Heaven’s light” as they listen to their service.
The key light in the scene must have been placed to the right of the camera and behind the subjects at a high angle. The audience can tell because of the shadow on Lee’s face. The right of his face is not being hit by key light as much as the left side which is still being hit by a soft light or possibly a diffuser.
The following scene contrasts the soft light and reverts back to hard lighting, the more prominent lighting technique used throughout. It is during the reception and Lee is casted with hard shadows over his face. Lee is drinking a beer and hard light is used to display his character’s emotion and how he struggles with alcoholism. Lee just wants to be left alone to grieve. He had a moment of peace during the service but now interacting with friends seems to just annoy Lee.
The hard shadows on Lee is extremely effective to create the atmosphere of the film. The lighting plays a significant role in contributing to the mood and tone of the film. The audience never feels happy, inspired, or uplifted at any point in the movie.
The lighting is exceptionally significant to creating the mood, theme, setting, and time of place throughout the film. As aforementioned above, certain lighting techniques are used to show character emotions such as Lee’s grief and depression. The dark shadows and hard light contributes to the mood and theme, helping set the dark somber feel of the film. Manchester by the Sea is an excellent film that I would highly recommend. It is extremely well done, especially in terms of lighting. It is a very aesthetic film, taking the audience on an adventure of human emotions.