Director: Kenneth Lonergan
When writing about Margaret, it’s probably worth noting at the beginning that there is no actual character named Margaret in the film. The title is a reference to the poem ‘Spring and Fall: To A Young Child’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins. The poem is a bleak reassurance to a child of the fragility of nature and the omnipotence of death; it comes to us all, a fact that the lead in Margaret has shoved in her face. We’re going on a personal quest here, people; hold your breath as we take the dive.
The journey that 17-year-old Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) undertakes in Margaret is mirrored and eclipsed by that undertaken by writer/director Kenneth Lonergan to get the film released. The film was shot in New York in 2005, but then came the post-production process. It’s a long and complicated tale, but it boils down to Lonergan, his financiers and Fox Searchlight getting litigious over the editing process (Lonergan’s original cut was over three hours). In 2009, Fox Searchlight actually declared the film ‘unreleasable’, and the lawsuits went on. Eventually, a finished cut was declared and released in September 2011. It debuted on one (1!) screen at the London Odeon but was far and away the highest-grossing film on a per-screen basis upon release. Despite this, Margaret has grossed less than $50,000 back from a $14 million budget. Despite a vehement push by some critics (The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw calls it “mysteriously, mesmerically, operatically compelling”), the post-production wrangles and bungled release has rendered Margaret an cautionary footnote in the annals of Hollywood. After a viewing, it’s clear that Margaret’s ‘also-ran’ status was all but unavoidable, but also undeserved and unreflective of what bubbles ‘neath the cruel surface and all the talk of lawsuits. It’s a combative piece, eschewing easy options such as likeability and clear emotions, and offering stories and people you’d perhaps not like to see or hear.
Anna Paquin has played her share of precocious young madams, but Lisa Cohen outdoes them all. Lisa is confident, opinionated and very intelligent, but still lacking in maturity and emotional restraint. In other words, she’s a teenager. A product of a good private school and an Upper East Side upbringing, Lisa dabbles in sex and drugs and is distant from her actress mother Joan (J. Smith-Cameron), whilst her father (director Kenneth Lonergan) is literally distant from them both, having separated and moved to California. At the apex of immaturity, this hot house flower has her world turned upside-down when she witnesses a bus running over a pedestrian, Monica (Allison Janney), an accident Lisa may have caused. Monica dies in Lisa’s arms, and from this point Margaret becomes less a portrait of spoilt little rich kids and more of a search for definition.
Lisa has all she wants, but Monica brings a sense of moral upstanding to Lisa’s otherwise self-interested world. The bus driver, Maretti (Mark Ruffalo), is getting away scot free, and Lisa aims to have him punished for his actions. It’s a challenging dichotomy for an audience whose emotions are usually clearly signposted in post-9/11 New York film; Lisa wants justice for Monica, but it stems from the fact that she feels guilty and wants Maretti to feel the same guilt as she does. This is moral relativity at its most biased, but then Lisa is just one of a rogues’ gallery worth of shitty characters. Maretti appears to have no guilt, Joan can be as emotionally immature as her daughter and Monica’s best friend and executor Emily (Jeannie Berlin) is an honest-but-bitter pill. All are surrounded by smooth talkers (Joan starts dating a smooth Columbian businessman, played by Jean Reno) and lawyers. Sartre’s analysis of other people springs to mind. Ironically, probably the only character that can’t be judged in some way is Monica, and that’s mostly by virtue of the fact she dies shortly after appearing onscreen! Lisa’s frequent use of the c-word may stem from the fact many of the people here are plain c**ts.
Margaret is populated by horrible people, and yet is so interestingly empathetic that it manages to paper over most of the problems that plague it. Like its teenage protagonist, Margaret is immensely self-confident, wittily intelligent and frequently over-dramatic. This latter comment is not intended as a criticism; in fact, considering the sordid and contemptuous actions of so many characters, a little drama helps introduce emotion and offer a little perspective. Should Lisa report what she knows about Maretti to the bus company’s investigators? She’ll do Monica justice, but get Maretti fired and leave his family with no income. Lisa’s decisions have the potential to split an audience, and that’s what seemed to have scared the distributors and marketers. Heaven forbid the matinée crowd might not be sure what to think about someone onscreen! As we see Lisa have her rather impersonal first sexual encounter with stoner Paul (Kieran Culkin), we feel voyeuristic but have to remind ourselves this is our heroine. Had we not seen that scene, would we think any less of her?
Lonergan offers us something special indeed: a lesson in context. Margaret is an acknowledgement of the narrow scope of cinematic diegesis. As the preparations for the bus company’s trial continue to frustrate, Lisa over-reacts and Emily is forced to remind her that she (Emily) is not a side player in the drama of Lisa’s life. Margaret is not an ensemble piece in the vein of Magnolia, but many supporting characters feel more fleshed out than most other dramas might allow them to. It helps that some characters are played by big names such as Ruffalo, Matthew Broderick (as Lisa’s English teacher) and Matt Damon (as Lisa’s Geometry teacher). Others are just fleshed out through great writing and performances (Joan benefits especially here, and Smith-Cameron is excellent). We care more than we otherwise would about Lisa because we are interested in those around her and they care about her.
Having pointed out the refreshment offered by Margaret, it seems a pity to point out some problems, but they are there. At 150 minutes, it could test patience. This cut may have been edited by Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker (and approved by Lonergan), but Margaret may be a true rarity: a film with too many ideas to juggle at once! This may explain why some characters, for all their development, get dropped at random points and picked up in others. Come the final reel, some of the hard work done by Lonergan starts to fall apart, and some of the side roles do begin to feel like cyphers, despite their protestations. This cut may have Lonergan’s blessing, but should the director’s cut of Margaret ever see the light of day, it may well be miraculous. As it is, Margaret is a testament to a hobbled directorial ambition, and a stylish challenge to a mindset that has been spoon-fed emotionality and comforted by bland convention.