Margaret Review By Adam
After one of the most tumultuous productions in recent cinema history, director Kenneth Lonergan’s sophomore film Margaret is finally being released. Now that the dust has settled on the lawsuits, rumoured three-hour-plus running times, forced edits and fallings out, one question remains: is Margaret any good? Damn right it is – this thing is a borderline masterpiece.
The Margaret of the title is derived from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Poem Spring and Fall: To a Young Child. The poem’s theme of emotional maturity directly correlates to the journey of Margaret’s protagonist Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin). Lisa is a precocious 17-year old student living in Manhattan. In a random encounter, she distracts a bus driver (Mark Ruffallo) and causes a fatal accident. The accident serves as a catalyst for Lisa, her idealistic viewpoint of the world being shaken, and she sets out make sure everyone is affected by the accident as much as she is. Her abrasive and cavalier attitude constantly butts against the adults in her life including her actress mother (J. Cameron Smith), her teachers (Matt Damon and Matthew Broderick) and Emily (Jeannie Berlin) a friend of the deceased.
While many will classify this film as ‘arthouse’, it has very little in the way of abstract elements. This film has a very linear plot and despite its lofty thematic aspirations, Lonergan is a writer of unusual clarity. Every exchange between his amazingly well-drawn characters is articulate and rich. There is little in Margaret to misinterpret and despite a few city montages there is little that is stylistically indulgent. Lonergan, with help of cinematographer Ryszard Lenczewski, has unburdened this film from overt, stylish flourishes. They do nothing to obscure the performers and when you have a film this well written and performed, this is a blessing. The only reason for its ‘arthouse’ tag is its unwieldy running time (150 minutes). I would be lying if didn’t think certain elements or subplots could have been removed, but this film didn’t outstay its welcome with me. I would compare Margaret’s length to a rich and engrossing novel – if you are enjoying the characters you don’t mind how many pages it is.
Originally shot in 2005 (at one point the characters go to see a film - The 40-year old Virgin is playing) and only now hitting screens, Margaret is a unique, difficult film. The discrepancy between the time it was shot and its release is no more evident than in the appearance of its main actress: Anna Paquin. Paquin is most commonly known as Bill Compton’s pneumatic love interest Sookie Stackhouse on HBO’s True Blood. All blonde hair and fake tan, Sookie is the polar opposite of Lisa Cohen, the protagonist of Margaret . Paquin is a brunette adolescent in Margaret, shapely and awkward, her physical presence is a mile away from the toned bombshell on our televisions. Paquin is front and center of every scene in Margaret and her work is some of the best I have ever encountered by an actress; she is stupefyingly good in this film. She is so in synch with Lonergan’s writing that their relationship is symbiotic – I couldn’t see the seams on this performance. Given the right backing, Paquin would have earned her second Oscar for her portrayal of Lisa, I’m sure of it.
The rest of the cast is uniformly superb with Margaret containing some of the best ensemble acting of this decade. Every character is so well-drawn and articulate that the film is in danger of sounding like fifteen different versions of the writer. But Lonergan makes sure every actor’s interpretation of his text is unique. I felt so engaged by the actors in this that I tricked myself into thinking I had seen more of their work. J. Cameron Smith (Lonergan’s wife) is so devastatingly fragile and human as Lisa’s mother that I felt like I had seen her a hundred times before in film. It was only during research that I realised she was, in fact, a stage actress with limited screen credits. She is just one example of the excellence on show here. Matt Damon is cast fantastically against type as a bleeding-heart geometry teacher and Mark Ruffalo is powerful as a victim of fate. This film contains many scenes of dialogue that are instant classics; expect to see a lot of Margaret in high school drama rooms in years to come. One of my favourite elements of this film is its logic. Lisa is often a meddling, self-absorbed bitch who has little consideration for the feelings of others, but… she frequently gets called out on this. If this film left her unchecked and we were meant to just ‘get’ Lisa, this would be a wholly different (far inferior) film.
While Margaret will not be everyone’s cup of tea, I am bummed that this is getting such a limited release. It has a starry cast, the involvement of Martin Scorsese (who edited this latest version) and the critical reception has been widely positive, but when a film is released on a single cinema screen it feels like an admission of guilt. I think the closest work this resembles is that of Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia), Anderson can make mundane situations fascinating through clever casting and sharp, observational writing; these are things that Margaret has in spades.
This review has been one, big series of superlatives. So, why was I so taken with this film? One of the main factors of this film’s prolonged turn-around process was that writer/director Kenneth Lonergan had difficulties finding his film in the editing process. I have no doubt that this film would have been hard to cobble together, as Lonergan has chosen to take one big, universal theme – the moment when naive idealism meets the realistic, defeatist nature of the adult world – and make a feature film out of it. This theme-based cinema is something that used to be common in the films of the 1970s, when intelligent film-makers were more interested in the human condition than CGI robots fighting. Despite a few exceptions (Steve McQueen’s Shame) this type of cinema is almost extinct. For all of this film’s missteps (which I believe are limited), it should be commended for attempting to tackle something as basic – and insurmountable – as a single human emotion.