Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Margaret (2011)

Howl

Image: Fox Searchlight

Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan shot Margaret in 2005. The follow-up to his acclaimed debut You Can Count on Me, it stars Anna Paquin, Matt Damon, and Mark Ruffalo. But it never appeared. A long and bitter struggle to complete an edit that everyone was happy with (even Scorsese had a go) was finally resolved earlier this year with a comprised cut. So is it worth the wait?

Lisa (Paquin) is a privileged high school student in New York. On the way home from school, she distracts a bus driver (Ruffalo) who runs a red light and kills a woman. She dies in Lisa’s arms, setting off an explosive personal crisis.

It’s easy to see how the editing of a film like Margaret would be a difficult process. Simply put, there’s just so much going on. While another filmmaker would use the plot to propel a low-key family drama, Lonergan’s not content with confronting a spoiled teen with the ugly reality of life and death. Shot during the Bush era, there’s fierce discussion of America’s place in the world, not to mention the place of people like Lisa in America. It’s all very well for Lisa to have a crisis of conscience over whether or not to tell the police the light was in fact red as the bus driver went through it, but does she have the right to destroy his family?

And what right does she have to involve herself in the memory of the deceased woman? In a lot of ways Margaret is about the struggle to find the right place for these incredibly raw emotions. The daughter of a divorced and needy New York stage actress, Lisa has been bred for dramatic confrontations and howling arguments but has no idea what to do when people call her on it. There’s not always room for poetic interpretations in real life. But acting like she’s above it all doesn’t help either, as her decision to lose her sexual innocence leads to various disappointments. 

Lonergan also takes the time to explore the character of Lisa’s mother Joan, wonderfully played by J. Smith Cameron (True Blood). The more time we spend with her, the more we see just how similar mother and daughter really are. Joan is desperate for positive reinforcement but is unable to find any from her daughter, and takes comfort in the company of polite, sophisticated, but dull software magnate Ramon (Jean Reno). Everyday life is as much of a performance for Lisa and Joan, whether they know it or not.

Paquin gives a perfectly judged performance. Lisa is a difficult character, but as the film progresses we find ourselves understanding her if not exactly liking her. She’s certainly compelling. Cameron is superb, Reno is a wonderful surprise, and there are small but well-judged turns from Damon, Ruffalo, Matthew Broderick, and a stunning cameo from Alison Janney.

It’s a tough proposition: a two-and-a-half hour raw emotional journey of unlikeable characters. But it’s wonderfully written, powerfully acted, surprisingly funny, and often moving.

Verdict: Like its subject, Margaret is overreaching, dramatic, all over the place, challenging, but impossible to ignore and all the more fascinating for it.

4/5

JH

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