Margaret (2011)

Superlative performances make director Kenneth Longeran’s gloomy comeback, released more than half a decade after shooting, a charm.


Kenneth Lonergan
Kenneth Lonergan
Director of Photography:
Ryszard Lenczewski

Running time: 150 minutes

By the time Margaret was finally released, it had aged so much it had probably passed its expiration date already.

Shot in 2005, it took a full six years before this film saw the light of day and was finally released for distribution. One of the main reasons for the delay was director Kenneth Lonergan’s insistence on a three-hour running time. Given enormous opposition on the part of the distributors, Lonergan eventually relented, and in the end his film is 150 minutes long.

Two and a half hours is an ambitious length for a film whose plot can easily be summarised, and although the film evinces much of Lonergan’s skill as a storyteller, it doesn’t do him justice as a filmmaker. One of the best films of the first decade of the 21st century was his début feature, You Can Count On Me, a masterpiece of contemporary cinema that has a small story about infidelity and sibling rivalry and first made critics sit up and notice Mark Ruffalo.

Ruffalo makes a return in Margaret, though his brief presence is a great disappointment: He plays a significant role in the development of the film and yet he appears only in two short scenes — both in which, it must be said, he delivers a performance worthy of enormous praise.

Taking its title from the eponymous poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins that speaks of grief and a child’s response to the concept of death as it is represented by dead leaves, an emotional reaction as strong as an adult’s reaction to the death of a friend, or of oneself. The poem is very appropriate, as it encapsulates the essence of the film’s plot very accurately.

Lisa (Anna Paquin) is a sharp-tongued teenager living with her mother and younger brother in the Upper West Side in New York City. She will soon join her absent father (played by Lonergan) on a trip to New Mexico and decides to try to find a cowboy hat somewhere in upper Manhattan. She fails, until she notices a bus driver wearing one on the job. She runs after the bus, waving to get the driver’s attention, but the driver only waves back, and not paying attention, he runs a red light and crushes a woman pushing a shopping cart over the road.

When the police ask Lisa whether the light was red at the time of the accident, she looks over at the bus driver (Ruffalo) and when he looks back, she takes it as a sign there is silent complicity between them, and she decides to protect him by saying the light was green. But she is deeply affected by the woman who was run over, a woman who slipped the surly bonds of Earth while lying in Lisa’s arms, and she tracks down the woman’s family.

But Lisa is a piece of work. She is a bit of a stereotypical teenage girl, with all the drama and snotty retorts to her mother that go along with it, and she always tries to ensure she has the upper hand in conversations, even if that upper hand is (usually) gained with sarcasm. She is immature even as she verbally abuses and bullies many people around her, breaking hearts and testing their good will towards her. Over the course of the film, she steamrolls many men in her life, and many women, including her mother, are also terribly hurt. The film is a good companion piece to Noah Baumbach’s 2005 film The Squid and the Whale, a film that navigates with an equally despicable but more vulnerable teenage protagonist, though Margaret lacks the latter film’s tight focus.

The film is not always easy to watch, but Lonergan finds raw emotion in the everyday details of New York that are dark but not without hope and presents that emotion with compelling clarity. Sometimes he veers a bit too far toward so-called gritty realism by inserting seemingly random fragments of footage into his scenes — a ferry on the Hudson here, a seagull soaring over Central Park there — but these moments do not contribute as powerfully to the viewer’s impression of realism as the cast’s performances.

Unfortunately, the film’s release puts it at a slight disadvantage, as the obviously significant events of 9/11 and the Iraq War seemed outdated upon its release, though the theme of revenge, for the death of one woman on the street, or thousands in the two World Trade Centre towers or in the Middle East, is obviously very relevant to the plot itself. This objection will certainly fade with time, and perhaps the film can be more fully appreciated after an interval of another six years.

Margaret is, if not a brilliant piece of cinema, at least another affirmation of Lonergan’s talent as a screenwriter and artist of human emotions. Paquin plays her vile character with great passion and supports the equally superlative cast, from J. Smith-Cameron, who plays her mother, a theatre actress, to side characters like the happy-go-lucky Paul (Kieran Culkin).

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