Film Review: Margaret

Margaret is the ‘new’ film from writer/director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count On Me), and it is quickly apparent that the film was shot several years ago (in fact, it was filmed in 2005 and originally due for release in 2007). Hence the shot of the multiplex that is showing Serenity and Flightplan, the poster for The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and the reference to the current U.S. President as being one of the worst yet.

The film’s distributor insisted that Lonergan edit the film to under 2.5 hours and Lonergan was reportedly unable to settle on a cut that he was happy with. After years of legal disputes, Lonergan finally signed off on this cut, which was apparently edited with the assistance of Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker. The resulting film feels fractured and messy, but there is a lot to embrace here.

The film centres around Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin), a 17-year-old New Yorker who attends what she describes as ‘a private school for over-privileged Jews.’ She lives with her mother, a fairly succesful theatre actress with whom Lisa has a strained relationship. She is fiercely confident, often talking back to teachers and asserting herself in class discussions. She cruelly toys with a male classmate who does her maths homework and is clearly smitten with her. She employs a wide vocabulary, sometimes effortlessly and sometimes awkwardly.

Lisa’s bubble is ruptured when she inadvertently contributes to a traffic fatality. The incident occurs when she is trying to signal a bus and the driver (Mark Ruffalo) becomes distracted by her. He doesn’t see a red light and runs over a pedestrian (Allison Janney). This extended sequence is both coldly visceral and highly emotional, with Lonergan refusing to cut away from the trauma. It is a brilliantly-executed scene, one that I found extremely upsetting. When the police question Lisa, she lies and says that the traffic light was green. The film follows her over the next couple of months, as she struggle to rectify her actions.

Structurally, this is a very unusual script. It is sprawling, following Margaret through various storylines that are often completely unrelated (apart from her presence in each of them). Characters like her best friend appear in a couple of scenes and then disappear. Some of this is undoubtedly due to the fact that the film was intended to be approximately 3 hours, so a lot of scenes have been cut out. Nevertheless, it is an interesting approach to the story. If you invest primarily in the fall-out from the traffic fatality, then you may find yourself wondering why so many unrelated plotlines are interrupting the story. I think that the best way to approach this is as a study of Lisa’s emotional crisis, which is triggered by the accident. The accident and subsequent lawsuit string the film together, but are only one aspect of her life at this time, and Lonergan wants to give us a complete picture.

There are several moments in which the editing betrays the loss of material. A couple of scenes have obvious cut-aways to try to mask this, while other scenes offer jarring cuts between different parts of a conversation, leaving you to fill in the pieces. It is an odd effect, and makes me very curious to see the longer director’s cut.

One thing that I really like about the script is Lonergan’s approach to dialogue. While many writers aim to have their scenes flow and exhibit a regular rhythm, Margaret features several scenes in which characters talk over each other and jostle to be heard, or even grind the conversation to a halt to debate the use of a particular word. It is a fascinating approach, and gives each scene a thrilling sense of realism. More importantly, it doesn’t feel forced; rather, it feels natural for Lisa’s character and indeed any conversation that involves her (she tends to incite people to fits of frustrated screaming).

Lisa is a fascinating, superbly-drawn character, and Paquin is marvellous, perfectly capturing her curious mixture or brash confidence and painful vulnerability. The supporting cast is fantastic, in particular J. Smith-Cameron (most recently seen with Paquin on True Blood) as Lisa’s mother, who struggles to connect with her troubled daughter. I also really enjoyed Paquin’s scenes with Kieran Culkin, Mark Ruffalo and Matt Damon. Lisa is a beguiling presence, and Paquin uses this to play wonderfully off her co-stars.

Margaret is a lot like its central character; it has a confident voice that is occasionally awkward, and it puts more than a few feet out of place. But it is also very endearing, and refreshingly honest. In the end, it is hard not to succumb to its curious spell.

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  1. The Top Films of 2012 « Cashier de Cinema - December 16, 2012

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