Casey Affleck’s low-key mumble-y style of acting has always divided critics, but love him or hate him, there’s no denying he has delivered the performance of his career in Manchester by the Sea.

His deathly still, haunting presence is perfectly tuned to Kenneth Lonergan’s quietly devastating tale of loss and guilt – while you can sense the heartbreak simmering beneath the surface, his tightly-reined turn ensures the film never tips into melodrama. And in less capable hands, Manchester by the Sea could easily have been an overly emotional tearjerker.

Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a moody, morose handyman who returns to his hometown of the title after the death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) and is shocked to discover that he has been named guardian of the latter’s son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). The teenager is also less than enamoured that he has been left in the care of a grumpy uncle intent on returning to the city as soon as possible. Through flashbacks, we eventually learn why the emotionally scarred Lee could never bring himself to live in his hometown again.

Sure, it all sounds a little bleak and it’s fair to say that pathos is never far away; despite the picturesque setting, Lonergan’s austere visuals further add to the air of melancholy. However, a dry vein of humour runs throughout the film, and the snarky banter and by-play between Affleck and Hedges is an unexpected delight. The flashback scenes involving Lee and wife Randy (Michelle Williams) also crackle with earthy humour, although when his dark secret is eventually revealed, the sadness she brings to the screen is almost unbearable to watch.

However, it’s Affleck’s show and with older brother Ben haven fallen from favour a little over the past year, Casey fully deserves to step into the spotlight. It’s early days, but this is one of the best films you will see this year.

In cinemas: February 2, 2017
Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges
Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan