Margaret [Lonergan, 2011]
Plenty has been said about Kenneth Lonergan’s second feature film, Margaret. It sat in development limbo for five years before finally being released in 2011. Even then, it garnered little publicity and recognition from the critical community. Thanks to an enthusiastic British response, a few loud critics, and a large-scale Twitter campaign (#TeamMargaret), Margaret was finally given a new, longer, more experimental cut and released on Blu and DVD this month. After waiting a year to see it, I finally got my copy and watched both versions back-to-back. Margaret is as complicated as its biography.
The movie is clearly a reaction to 9/11. New York could be considered Anna Paquin’s co-star. Margaret takes great pride in its city, providing a wealth of admiring images as much about the millions of people who call it home as it is about the buildings and roads and traffic lights. We follow Lisa, played by Paquin with astonishing virtuosity and vulnerability, a high school student attempting to cope with the emotional burden of having been partially responsible for a tragic bus accident. The title references a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem which is read at Lisa’s private school, only one of the several settings that Margaret inhabits. We step in myriad plot holes and long strands of operatic drama are ultimately left dangling in the air. But the disorientation (better articulated in the rocky “extended” cut) is the point and Lonergan’s numerous opera references are deliberate — articulating the narcissistic agony and ecstasy of every moment after a tragedy while the world outside never stops spinning. The final scene is at a performance of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann where Lisa and her mother share a moment of connection amidst an enormous sea of heads, all feeling and enduring their own drama.
Lonergan’s script is a masterpiece. As pure drama, it succeeds brilliantly. More than one scene forces deep discomfort into the audience. Margaret is inhabited by characters (some drawn better than others) who share extraordinarily complex connections with each other. The amount of emotional baggage that Lonergan manages to distill into brief conversations is startling. And, luckily, the script is backed by a slew of inspired performances. J. Smith-Cameron’s Joan and Jeannie Berlin’s Emily are powerful characters in a story where, refreshingly, women dominate the screen. There isn’t a single shallow performance. Guilt, fear, discomfort, and urgency are explored in a rich theme & variations with Lisa and everyone connected to her.
Strictly as a drama or literature, Margaret is nearly perfect. But as a film it is less convincing. Lonergan is clearly a director who was brought up in the theatrical tradition. He has a tendency to utilize flat middle shots with surprisingly little depth. This is particularly upsetting because as he pulls away into a wide shot or pushes in for coverage the images become arresting, angular even. Some of his close-ups, like the one on Lisa in the shower washing the blood off of her body, are framed with exquisite imbalance — just enough to signal a crooked psychology. The same is true of his wide shots, like when Lisa and her friend are seen smoking pot in the park. Much of his facility with these wide shots comes from a willingness to experiment with sound. As Broderick’s Mr. van Tassell is walking away from the girls, we hear them quietly making fun of him. But it is made hyper-sensitive by the sound mix as the camera cuts away to only him. We hear what he is imagining. This experimentation is abundant in the “extended” cut — probably its biggest advantage over the theatrical release. Nico Muhly’s score mostly accompanies the New York montages (including one with particular impact showing a plane, high in the sky, passing behind the buildings in the foreground) and some later dialogue sequences. The music is capable of quality but rarely influences the drama.
Regardless of Margaret‘s visual shrug, it is a story of enormous force written with breathtaking control by Kenneth Lonergan. What some may misinterpret as messiness is really an example of precision that approaches genius — a one-of-a-kind portrait.