Shot in 2005, director/writer Kenneth Lonergan’s sprawling, unwieldy, and ultimately gut-wrenching masterpiece has finally seen the true light of day, albeit in Blu-ray and DVD.
The feature, which had a whisper of a theatrical release last year for awards consideration, is not easily digested, which, in an attention deficit ridden world, only heightens the challenge.
Mr. Lonergan, a respected playwright (This Is Our Youth) and screenwriter (Gangs of New York, Analyze This) who hit a cinematic home run with his directorial debut (You Can Count On Me), goes for the fences once again with Margaret. Unfortunately, crafting an ambitious, non-conforming tale centering on Lisa (Anna Paquin), a petulant, teenage know-it-all, took an exacting toll on its creator. If you’re interested in Lonergan’s creative battles in overcoming his white whale, it’s laid out in this New York Times piece.
Lisa believes her opinions are her only truth, and even during her lowest moments she remains steadfast. That’s the beauty of youth - its firm hold on unshakable confidence and idealism is usually driven to its knees by adulthood. In Gerald Manley Hopkins’ poem “Spring and Fall,” the narrator tells a child named Margaret (hence the film’s title) that “as the heart grows older, it will come to such sights colder.” The poem, recited by Lisa’s English teacher (Matthew Broderick), is read deep into the film, and by that moment one hopes our protagonist has a minor reckoning.
Raised in New York by her actress mother (Lonergan’s wife J. Smith-Cameron), Lisa is a privileged Upper West Side 17-year-old who believes she has the world on a string. Her frivolous exchange with a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) inadvertently leads to a woman’s (Allison Janney) death. As Lisa holds the bloodied victim during her final moments, she asks our heroine, “Are my eyes open or closed?”
One of many verbal sparring matches incited by Lisa (Anna Paquin) in Margaret:
For most of her journey, Lisa’s eyes are definitely shut. She arbitrarily invites her callow classmate Paul (Kieran Culkin) to deflower her, has a tryst with a teacher (Matt Damon), and blithely shatters the emotions of Darren (The Newsroom’s John J. Gallagher), her enamored and long suffering best friend. Whether the tragedy truly changes her is arguable, as her approach to life is inextricably linked to her mother’s behavior. Both, whether it’s unbeknownst or actualized, exist as the star of their own movie or play. After Emily returns from a funeral of a loved one, she dramatically (as if she’s on center stage) tells her daughter that she is “lost at sea.”
Determined to hold the bus driver accountable, Lisa teams up Emily (Jeannie Berlin), the woman’s best friend, to file a wrongful death lawsuit. Her unwavering determination in holding the bus driver accountable at the cost of her own sanity is commendable, but like her mother, Lisa brings a narcissistic theatrically to the proceedings. When Emily yells “This is not an opera,” she remains surprisingly nonplussed.
Communication breakdown is at the thematic core of Lonergan’s masterwork. He visually frames New York City as a wall of white noise, surrounded by disconnected denizens suffocating on a congested island. Although he illustrates how a life immersed in the arts can delude one’s perceptions, Mr. Lonergan also suggests that such behavior, tempered with empathy, could open the door to an emotional, if not fleeting, form of deliverance.
The theatrical version, running at two and a half hours, is presented in Blu-ray format. The extended version, clocking in at three hours and six minutes, is offered up on DVD. If you really want to immerse yourself Lonergan’s narrative, start off with the theatrical version and then dive into the extended cut. With the extended version, Lonergan’s visual aesthetic (a rooftop exchange between J. Smith-Cameron and Jean Reno contains an inspired tracking shot) is fully realized, and Lisa’s relationships with Paul, Darren, and her mother (the pair deal with an unexpected event that’s briefly alluded to in the theatrical cut) are given added added depth.
Click on the media bar and listen to Anna Paquin give her views on Lisa’s internal struggles:
(If my review of Margaret understandably confused or annoyed you, check out the “8 Degrees of Margaret” photo below for a streamlined version of Lisa’s world)
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posted by Greg Srisavasdi