Thursday, February 23, 2012

Review: Margaret


The story behind Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret at one time threatened to be more interesting than the film itself. The story is well covered elsewhere, so I won't waste precious HTML code here. But after six or seven years of recuts, supposedly broken contracts, lawsuits and Martin Scorcese, Margaret finally received a theatrical release. The conspiracy theorists came out in force: not even making $50,000 at the American box office, the suggestion was that the film was buried by Fox in a final act of bitterness. Who knows? What I do know, however, is that Margaret is a triumph in spite of its turbulent path to a very limited number of theaters.

A pre-True Blood Anna Paquin plays Lisa Cohen, a high school student in New York. One day, while searching for a cowboy hat, she distracts a bus driver who accidentally cuts a red light and runs over  pedestrian Monica (Alison Janney). In a remarkably intense and powerful sequence, Monica dies in Lisa's arms. The film then splits off in various interrelated directions, showing Lisa's often manipulative interactions with the people around her. There's too many interesting characters to mention here, but they include her mother Joan (J. Smith-Cameron), the bus driver Maretti (Mark Ruffalo), Monica's distraught friend Emily (Jeannie Berlin) and a friendly teacher (Matt Damon) who may or may not be attracted to Lisa.

Margaret is certainly the product of a different time. This is a film that predates the digital camera revolution - it's actually kind of surreal seeing a grainy 35mm image on the big screen these days. The cast are all noticeably fresher-faced, while some (like a young Olivia Thrilby) have since broken into the public conscious. And Lonergan represents New York as a place still attempting with September 11th - while this isn't a 9/11 film in the traditional sense, impassioned debates about American foreign policy and cultural diversity are definitely the product of an uncertain last decade.

This is, on that note, a beautiful 'city' film. New York is a place full of energy, noise and people: rarely has a filmmaker expressed that fact as well as Lonergan. In some scenes, for example, the conversations of random New Yorkers are given the same prominence as the lead characters. It's an electrifying stylistic decision, and really makes us feel as if we're in the Big Apple with these characters. Other scenes show Lisa and others very much lost in the crowd: we as the viewer are only privvy to the activities of a handful of these citizens, but the film frequently reminds us this is a city full of stories and people.

Lonergan's astonishing debut You Can Count on Me established him as one of America's most brilliant writer of characters and director of actors. It's a strength he only builds upon here. At the centre is Lisa, who - as brought to life by a terrific Anna Paquin, embracing the rare script that truly utilises her Oscar-winning skills - is one of contemporary cinema's most hypnotic protagonists. She is not, shall we say, the likeable sort. Immature but highly manipulative, the film follows her attempts to deal with the guilt she refuses to confront. There are times when she proves well able to dominate other characters: she's particularly able to wrap boys and men around her little finger (I noted last review that Your Sister's Sister contained a brilliantly awkward sex scene: Margaret trumps it). Lisa, as a man-eater, frequently leaves emotional trainwrecks in her wake.

Yet at the same time she's a highly fragile sort who aggressively rejects the people who care for her, or those who fail to conform to her point of view. Her mother particularly is the subject of much hostility, and in one of her most selfish scheme Lisa attempts to 'replace' Joan with the grieving Emily. Despite both her conscious and subconscious attempts at getting her way, it's ultimately the infrequent breakdowns that show Paquin at her strongest. Lonergan is a master of dramatic pacing, and when Lisa's inner turmoil and tensions burst through the surface it's impossible to look away from screen. A number of scenes - an increasingly tense telephone conference, the frequent mother-daughter disputes, a confused exchange about a supposed abortion - are destined to be used in screenwriting and acting classes for many years hence, much like the restaurant scene from You Can Count on Me is today. And the final scene - a tearful reunion after an exhausting (in a good way) two and a half hours - is the perfect emotional sendoff for our young protagonist. She may not always be a nice person, but Lisa is the glue that holds Margaret together and keeps the audience involved. The rest of the cast are universally strong, it must be said, and the way characters play-off each other is a cause for giddy joy.

This is a dense film, no doubt about it. Like most deeply individual works, it has a tendency to overindulge at times. There are a huge amount of characters and subplots here, and a handful don't work as well as others. Joan's relationship with the dashing Ramon (Jean Reno) has interesting moments but I found it harder than others to place into the film's grand overall thematic and narrative scheme. Similarly, a lengthy legal diversion in the second-half of the film has a tendency to overdo the exposition: the twenty minutes or so focusing on an attempt to sue Ruffalo's character are definitely the toughest of the film. Yet it leads to a fascinating conclusion, and despite the implementation being awkward at times it is arguably the subplot featuring the most important character development and resolutions.

It's to the writer/director's credit that despite not everything sticking, the sheer amount of fascinating subplots in display makes it an easy flaw to forgive. Some will accuse the film of underwriting some characters, but I couldn't agree with such an accusation. Even the characters who only drift in for brief periods - like Matthew Broderick's teacher John, whose reading of a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem gives the film its title - are there for very specific reasons. The effects of Lisa's various interactions are illustrated with brute force when needed and great subtlety elsewhere. Indeed, many important scenes take place off-screen or in silence, while character reactions are occasionally disguised by framing the actor walking away from camera. We don't need to see these things - the emotional results are all too obvious.

I've gone on for quite a while here, but that's because there is so much to ponder on in a film like Margaret that I find it impossible to condense into a short review. It's the kind of film where I needed a day or two to even partially articulate my opinion. It's telling that Lonergan and his editors struggled for years to cut this brilliantly dense movie down to the 150 minutes demanded by an impatient studio. It will be fascinating to see if Fox ultimately approve a full-length director's cut for home viewing. Even if they don't, cinema fans have been granted a small miracle with the eventual release of Margaret. It's a sprawling and messy masterpiece of screenwriting, acting and directing. It may not be for everyone, but I find it hard to imagine it could be dismissed as anything less than fascinating. It's brain-meltingly distinctive and brilliant: an auteur's vision important enough to rank up with the likes of The Tree of Life. It's the first film in years I genuinely cannot wait to sink my teeth into again. Margaret was worth the wait.

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