Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Stars: Anna Paquin, J Cameron Smith , Jean Reno, Mark Ruffalo, Matt Damon, Matthew Broderick, Jeannie Berlin, Kieran Culkin, Alison Janney.
Margaret is another post 9/11 drama that explores complex issues of right and wrong, guilt and justice, retribution, and is almost operatic in its structure.
Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) is a fiercely intelligent 17-year old college student who is involved in causing a fatal traffic accident. Lisa distracts the driver of a bus, which runs a red light and kills a pedestrian. Initially she lies to the police about what happened. Consumed by her guilt and responsibility at causing the accident, Lisa’s life begins to spiral out of control.
She confronts Maretti the bus driver (Mark Ruffalo), and tries to get him to admit his responsibility. She also meets Emily (Jeannie Berlin), a friend of the dead woman and gets her involved in legal proceedings. A sticking point in negotiations though is Lucy’s insistence that the driver be punished and sacked. She also takes out her mounting frustration and anger and sense of helplessness on two of her teachers (Matt Damon and Matthew Broderick). In one of her classes she heatedly confronts a fellow student about Middle East politics.
But it is her prickly relationship with her mother Joan (J Cameron Smith), an actress, that is at the centre of this searing and complex drama. The tensions between mother and daughter find their way into Joan’s performance on stage.
The central performances are tremendously effective. Paquin won an Oscar for her performance in Jane Campion’s The Piano, but her performance here as an alienated teenager is easily the best thing she has done. She is excellent in a complex and emotionally demanding role as the feisty, sensitive heroine racked with guilt and grief. And Cameron-Smith, (Lonergan’s wife, and an acclaimed theatre actor) is also very good in a difficult role. The ensemble supporting cast also includes Jean Reno as a suave opera-loving Colombian businessman and suitor for Joan, and Kieran Culkin is effective as Paul, the boy from the wrong side of the tracks to whom Lisa surrenders her virginity.
Margaret is Kenneth Lonergan’s long-awaited follow up to the acclaimed Oscar nominated drama You Can Count On Me, and it is an articulate, ambitious, affecting, unwieldy and haunting film full of ideas and big themes. Lonergan attempts to capture the soul of contemporary New York, where the wounds of 9/11 are still a gaping sore in some people’s lives. Polish cinematographer Ryszard Lenczewski (who shot the recent atmospheric thriller The Woman In The Fifth) gives us plenty of lyrical panoramas of the imposing New York skyline.
Margaret takes its title from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ 1880 poem Spring And Fall: To a Young Child, which one of Lisa’s teachers recites in class. The poem deals with the loss of innocence and a girl’s first real awareness of mortality, which neatly ties in with one of the film’s key themes.
Margaret was actually filmed way back in 2005 but has been held up in post-production limbo ever since. Lonergan’s original cut ran a mammoth four hours, and the director was protective of his vision, refusing to make any of the cuts demanded by the studio. Then the deaths of producers Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack further complicated matters. The film was shelved, until Martin Scorsese expressed interest in helping to reshape the film. Working with his long time collaborator editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese oversaw the editing process that reduced Margaret to this 140-minute version that Lonergan was happy with.
In the film’s emotional final scene, Lisa and Joan connect whilst watching a performance of Offenbach’s opera The Tales Of Hoffmann, demonstrating the healing power of art and beauty.
Nonetheless there are still several subplots running throughout the rich tapestry of this sprawling and flawed film that are not always satisfactorily resolved, which is most likely due to the re-editing process. Although Margaret is a bit of a mess, it is nonetheless one of those rare films that leaves you wanting more.