From Jackie and Manchester by the Sea to A Monster Calls, 2017s awards favourites are about loss. In turbulent times, is this the theme we need to tackle in order to make sense of a world in limbo?

Not since the advance publicity for Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street neglected to mention that Tim Burtons movie was a musical has a trailer obscured potentially off-putting information as successfully as the one for Manchester by the Sea. Anyone would mistake this awards favourite as a heartwarming tale of a taciturn janitor, played by Casey Affleck, who bonds with the nephew left in his care. But thats not the whole story not by a long chalk.

The films harrowing secrets will be preserved here, although prospective viewers should be warned that it is written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, who has form in the area of putting cinemagoers through the wringer. His debut, You Can Count on Me, begins with two children being orphaned after their parents die in a car crash. His second film, Margaret, traces the effects on a young woman of a gruesome bus accident in which she was complicit. If you knew you were a character in one of Lonergans movies, you would never go near a road. You might never leave the house, although that wouldnt really help you in the case of his new film.

Manchester by the Sea is about tragedy, culpability and grief, the sort of subjects that are the kiss of death to Hollywood studios at least until awards season, that is, when seriousness sells. This is the reason for the glut of adult-orientated prestige pictures between October and February, but it doesnt explain why the unifying theme in this years crop is grief. It is a subject that tends to surface periodically in the preferences of Academy voters. Robert Redfords Ordinary People, about a family struggling with the death of one of their sons, won best picture in 1981, while similarly themed contenders for that prize since have included Field of Dreams, Ghost, In the Bedroom, Mystic River and Babel.

This year, the air of mourning is concentrated in three impressive movies. As well as Manchester by the Sea, there is Pablo Larrans Jackie, a portrait of John F Kennedys widow (played by Natalie Portman) in the wake of her husbands assassination, and A Monster Calls, adapted by Patrick Ness from his novel about 13-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall), whose mother is terminally ill. Despite being aimed at a young audience, A Monster Calls doesnt soft-pedal the agony of grief. One of the films stars, Sigourney Weaver, recently told this newspaper that her initial response to the script was: I dont think I can be part of this, its too painful.

Claustrophobic intensity … Natalie Portman in Jackie. Photograph: William Gray/Fox Searchlight/AP

She wasnt the only one who felt that way. Most people responded really well, says Ness. But there were a few suggestions in early meetings about softening the story and making it a little easier. I really felt this was contrary to why the material worked. There was even someone who asked: Does the mother have to die? My response was: Well, yeah. Sadly, parents do die, and the kids they leave behind also read books and watch films, and they need to find themselves in those books and films. Grief is hard, and it feels irresponsible to say: There, there. Its OK. Sometimes its not OK.

The focus of the film is the relationship between Conor and the yew tree (voiced by Liam Neeson) that springs to life and reaches in through his bedroom window. Without the option of imaginative flourishes to explore unpalatable emotions, Manchester by the Sea and Jackie represent even greater challenges in the dramatisation of grief. As a solitary, debilitating state, grief goes against the grain of what cinema values most highly: it confounds momentum and thwarts all but the cruellest sort of closure. It is hard to make a film that is honest about the agonising slowness of grief, but which still moves forward in a compelling way. That really is the nature of storytelling, says Bruce Joel Rubin, the screenwriter behind a trilogy of films about death and grieving: Ghost, Jacobs Ladder and My Life. We probably wouldnt have stories if they didnt in some way give us hope. Many people have assumed thats the purpose of storytelling, but I dont think thats true. Theres a Chekhovian view of the world, which is that things dont change that much and that the real advances in life are harder and rarer.

Rubin is an ardent admirer of Jackie and Manchester by the Sea. Manchester is one of the most painful films Ive ever seen about the subject. It captures grief in more realistic terms than any normal Hollywood film. We have a tendency as Hollywood writers to create stories that uplift, so we take grief stories and turn them into stories that are somehow about transcending grief. In the process of doing it, we possibly make it look like an easier thing to achieve than it is in reality.

Manchester takes you to the truth of grief, which is that the transformation from it is a slow, laborious and difficult project. And not everybody gets there. What Manchester and Jackie both show is that you have to find the place inside that can very simply and gently tell you: Keep living.

Despite being aimed at a young audience, it doesnt soft-pedal the agony of grief … Lewis MacDougall in A Monster Calls. Photograph: Focus Features/AP

The frankness in these pictures about the isolation of grief is every bit as exacting as in some of cinemas finest examples Krzysztof Kielowskis Three Colours Blue, say, or Franois Ozons Under the Sand. In Jackie, Larrans use of tight closeups, accompanied by the plunging chords of Mica Levis score, creates a claustrophobic intensity. Portmans desolate face fills the cramped frame; her world has literally shrunk. With nowhere else to go, she must confront her anguish and we have no choice but to confront it along with her. It is instructive to compare Jackie with the feelgood comedy-drama Collateral Beauty, which follows a grieving businessman (Will Smith) from devastation to redemption with a haste that is positively indecent. The characters grief takes two eye-catching forms: brooding (he scowls a lot) or wacky (he spends days building domino cities, only to knock them down on a whim). Scenes set at a support group for bereaved parents feel especially exploitative in the way they provide instant, undeserved transfusions of a poignancy that is far outside the films range.

Ghost, for which Rubin won the Oscar for original screenplay in 1991, was much smarter in its use of genre elements (love story, thriller, comedy) to temper the pain felt by its main character, Molly (Demi Moore), after the murder of her partner, Sam (Patrick Swayze). Im not sure how much I understood the nature of grief at the time, Rubin says now. I did know that I was not, in the end, going to give Molly back what she wanted, which was Sam. She was going to have to lose him, and that process of losing the very thing that you want the most is probably the greatest form of suffering. I know I tried to create a very strong character who could survive the loss of her partner and that was reflected in the casting. Demi Moore exudes toughness. I knew I couldnt have people walk out of the theatre at the end worried that Molly wasnt going to be able to get through life.

Film language is well equipped to convey the dislocated shifts in time that are characteristic of grieving. The dissolves and fades in Ghost reflect the blurring in that picture between life and death, while there is one especially piercing montage in Larrans film that cuts together images of Jackie pottering around the White House in the period immediately after her husbands death; the repeated costume changes, which are the only proof that the shots have been harvested from different days, show how time can lose all definition during passages of intense emotional distress. Its every bit as eloquent as the moment in Sam Raimis shlocky thriller Darkman when a woman is transported in a single, seamless shot from the scene of her husbands death to his graveside a week later.

It would be tempting to see the current emphasis on grief in cinema as a response to a turbulent year, only film-making doesnt move that fast. It is more truthful, surely, to say that these are the movies we need right now to help us make sense of our times. Ness believes they reflect cultural changes that stretch back beyond the past 12 months. The internet allows us to hear bad things more easily and more often, he explains. That is an interesting shift that we are maybe struggling a bit to deal with. Information has never been this abundant before. The question is: how much can we take as human beings and how do we cope with the increase? One of the ways is to tell stories about how to deal with it. I dont think the world has changed as much as the internet has made it appear. Its just that we know much faster, and in a more concentrated way, when things are wrong, and our storytelling is responding to that.

This isnt to say that movies about grief wont always be a hard sell. Even a bantamweight approach to the subject such as Collateral Beauty is walking on eggshells, trying to reassure audiences that it isnt one big downer. (Of course, it is one big downer, but not because its about grief only because it doesnt take grief seriously.) Marketing a movie about grief to a mainstream audience has long been tricky. Rubin remembers similar problems with My Life, the 1995 drama he wrote and directed starring Michael Keaton as a dying man making a video for his son. My Life did not have an audience. It was advertised as a film about dying and people did not want to see that, which was incredibly painful for me.

For all of Manchester by the Seas acclaim, Rubin thinks it faces an uphill struggle. Its a hard sell. I watched people coming out of the theatre afterwards, and I think some people were shaken up by it, but I overheard others saying in the lobby: Oh, it was too slow. I got the impression they didnt want to go there. They didnt want to be touched that way.

But I think we have to demystify this idea that there is always a happy-ever-after ending. And movies like Manchester and Jackie are important because they tell the truth which is that there is nobody who can get you out of grief. Youre on your own. Its just you.

Collateral Beauty is out now. A Monster Calls opens in the UK on 1 January, Manchester by the Sea on 13 January and Jackie on 20 January


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