Kenneth Lonergan’s long-delayed follow-up to his critically acclaimed, Oscar-nominated 2000 drama You Can Count on Me is the absurdly ambitious and admirable Margaret, the release of which has been mired in controversy. It screened in Auckland over the Easter weekend as part of the 2012 World Cinema Showcase, and can next be seen in Wellington this weekend, followed by Dunedin and Christchurch later this month. Shot back in 2005, the film was unfortunately bogged down by protracted legal disputes following disagreements between the director, financiers, and Fox Searchlight over the final cut (Lonergan’s preferred version is apparently 180 minutes). His Gangs of New York director Martin Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker reportedly stepped in to help deliver the 150 minute cut the studio demanded, although neither are credited here. Following a weak, limited release in the US last September, Slant critic Jaime Christley started an online petition imploring the company to boost Margaret‘s profile with more screenings, and the #teammargaret hashtag even began trending on Twitter, eventually succeeding in gaining more press coverage and a slightly wider release for the film in both the US and the UK. With so much hype and drawn out anticipation, could Margaret possibly live up to such wild expectations? Improbably, it does. Alternately brilliant and frustrating, Lonergan’s sprawling, novelistic film is a near-masterpiece, and it really is a crying shame that Fox didn’t give it a chance as it’s every bit as deserving as Martha Marcy May Marlene.
Margaret stars a pre-True Blood Anna Paquin as Lisa Cohen, a privileged, distressingly neurotic 17-year-old Manhattan private school student who flirtatiously distracts a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) while out shopping for a cowboy hat, inadvertently playing a role in a fatal traffic accident which claims a woman’s life (Alison Janney). After initially lying to the police to protect the driver, Lisa begins to feel torn apart with frustration and can’t rest until the truth is known and the driver is held accountable for his actions. She seeks advice over the phone from her LA-based remarried father (Lonergan), participates in increasingly heated and intense 9/11-related arguments with her classmates (including Olivia Thirlby), and acts out in all the usual ways, including experimenting with sex and drugs with a cool stoner classmate (Keiran Culkin), flirting with her overly kind and earnest geometry teacher (Matt Damon), and provoking her actress mother, Joan (J. Smith-Cameron), who is understandably distracted by the opening of her new play as well as a blossoming relationship with her new businessman boyfriend (Jean Reno). Desperate to make some kind of sense of the tragedy, and no doubt assuage her guilt, Lisa forges a difficult friendship with the dead woman’s closest friend (Jeannie Berlin), and together they pursue a lawsuit against the MTA. But she soon finds that her youthful ideals do not fit well with the realities and compromises of the adult world.
Margaret‘s title comes from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem Spring and Fall: To a Young Child, which is offered for discussion by Lisa’s English teacher (Matthew Broderick) to reinforce the film’s themes of youthful naivety versus the way the world is, and the realisation and acceptance of mortality.
“Márgarét, are you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.”
By now you should have an inkling as to the sprawling, ambitious nature of Lonergan’s sophomore film, not to mention the incredible ensemble cast who all look remarkably young here (the opening credits alone are a stark reminder of the time that has passed since the film was conceived, as the names of departed producers Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack appear). For some, Margaret‘s unsympathetic, entitled and hyper-articulate protagonist will likely prove trying company over the course of two-and-a-half hours. And the meandering and occasionally baffling (read: heavily edited) storyline may prove just as indulgent and infuriating as its lead character. Some may even question the relevance of its references (9/11, George W. Bush, U.S. foreign policy circa 2005). However, I found Lonergan’s fascinating, operatic work to be hugely inspiring and admirable in spite of its flaws, and I very much hope the rumoured director’s cut will be made available on Blu-ray. While this version of Margaret may not quite be the definitive post-9/11 New York City film that Lonergan obviously aspired for, its palpable tension comes closer than just about every other effort to date, perhaps second only to Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, and you can’t help but wonder what impact this film could have made back in 2006. Director of Photography Ryszard Lenczewski captures a romantic portrait of the soul of modern-day NYC which is as elegant and memorable as any I can recall. As with You Can Count on Me, which made stars of Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo, the performances are uniformly terrific here. Anna Paquin and J. Smith-Cameron are especially fantastic, holding the fitful narrative together with career-best turns, and I have no doubt that both would have been serious award contenders had Margaret been released in ’06.
There were certainly more expertly crafted films released in 2011, but very few were as dazzling, ambitious, passionate, or thought-provoking as Margaret – a glorious mess of a film which I haven’t stopped thinking about for days. Do yourself a favour and catch it on the big screen if at all possible, and tell your friends, because this film deserves to be seen and discussed. Margaret ranks as my top pick of this year’s World Cinema Showcase, and will also feature highly in my list of the best films of 2011.
Watch the trailer for Margaret below. Check out its WCS screening dates here.