Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) is a somewhat spoiled and opinionated seventeen year old girl living with her mom, Joan (J. Smith-Cameron), an actress and her little brother in New York City. After witnessing a bus accident, in which she believes herself and a driver (Mark Ruffalo) to be guilty, Lisa’s views on life and people around her begin to change. As she immerses herself in an adult life, trying to understand the full consequences of her actions, she soon realises that there is no easy road to redemption and her connection with her family is the most valuable thing in the world.
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan (‘You Can Count on Me’ (2000)) and set in post-9/11 New York, ‘Margaret’ is probably now better known for its notorious eight years of production rather than for anything else. First written in 2003 and set in 2005, ‘Margaret’ was finally filmed in 2006. After that date, the constant editing and cutting processes began, which were also made the subject of countless disagreements and complicated lawsuits. When the film was finally released in 2011 it had gained audience only in twelve US cities and denied proper marketing campaigns anywhere else. Boasting such names as Anthony Mighella and Sydney Pollack, ‘Margaret’s final cut runs almost two and a half hours being last edited by Martin Scorsese.
The script seems interesting, and the film itself has a very unusual, realist aura to it, which shouts originality, but which also sometimes denies any rational reasoning or explanations, and seems to be grounded in both philosophical musings and misunderstood poetical (and political) expressions. Magnificent, although rather arbitrary, shots of New York add to this aura of inexplicability pertaining to the film, and one cannot help but wonder sometimes whether what one sees is a masterful work of art or just a plain melodrama.
‘Margaret’ raises important moral (and legal) issues. Lisa has to overcome her guilt regarding the incident, and she seeks forgiveness for her actions and acceptance in other people. From Lisa’s clear disregard for her well-being after the accident (i.e. losing virginity in irrational but planned circumstances and starting “dangerous liaisons” with her teacher) to her resilience in trying to achieve justice for the victim, everything points in the direction of seeking redemption for her actions. Half-way through the film, the viewer also gets entangled into the myriad of legal issues. The right position seems to be that Lisa was morally wrong for distracting the attention of a driver, but the driver was legally and morally wrong to pay attention to Lisa in the first place, not concentrating on the road and causing the accident to happen, i.e. he was reckless, and if not, clearly negligent (although Lisa is a contributing factor).
The film is also very interesting from a psychological viewpoint. It seems that Lisa is going through some stages of “grief/bereavement model”, starting from denial and anger, and progressing towards bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. The change in Lisa, triggered by the emotional upset, could not be said to be remarkable, but is still quite impressive – she seems to move from being a spoiled, irresponsible and privileged girl student to being a caring, morally responsible, serious and mature young woman.
One curious characteristic of this film is its pace and the unusual film shots. ‘Margaret’ watches as though the events in the film are happening regardless of the camera presence, and not the other way around – the camera “creating” the events in the film. This is a very refreshing way to tell a story, and this contributes to the film’s realistic nature. As a result of the slow pace, with many camera pauses, the film seems to unfold easily – and none of the scenes rush it forward. This also means that every scene has its inner beauty, and the movie becomes almost like a metaphor for a poem, which can be understood by different people in different ways, and there is no one single correct answer.
Another great thing in ‘Margaret’ is Paquin’s performance. Although teenage Lisa comes across as annoying and, even sometimes very dislikeable, Paquin never stops to portray her character with an enviable skill and her performance is admirable. Be it Lisa’s tantrum or her speech defending people of America with all the conviction and zeal she is capable of, Paquin is there to portray any change of mood or to display any kind of emotion. However, Lisa’s attitude also means that it becomes quite hard for the audience to relate to her, and, thus, truly sympathise with her situation.
J. Smith-Cameron, who plays Lisa’s mother, is also good in her portrayal of a dignified woman torn between her professional and family lives. The most surprising cast here is probably Jean Reno (‘Leon’ (1994)), who plays Joan’s suitor, Ramon. Reno does not bring anything extraordinary to the movie, but his presence brings some kind of imbalance, by distracting the audience and providing calm grounding and rationality to the background of Lisa’s hasty and reckless actions. Matt Damon as Mr. Aaron, Lisa’s teacher, is also good. It is clear that Damon should have had more screen time in order for him to develop a more meaningful relationship with Lisa on screen, and, therefore, to be fully incorporated into the film’s narrative.
The film time (two and half hours) may be adequate when one considers that the film once ran four and a half hours, but it is still too long and appears a painful drag at certain times. Moreover, constant cutting and editing do let themselves show throughout the film – be it through undeveloped side stories, e.g. Lisa’s abortion or through characters’ confusion, e.g. Mr. Aaron (Matt Damon) and his thoughts and feelings regarding Lisa and her actions. Another criticism is that despite ‘Margaret’s elaborate dialogue and a clear attempt at sophistication, the film sometimes borders on sheer tiresome predictability, and some scenes feel completely irrelevant, while other key ones, such as the accident sequence, are bound to raise many an eyebrow.
Whatever its faults, be it length, underdeveloped characters or sequence, Lonergan’s ‘Margaret’ is still a brave, original and very interesting piece of cinematography overall. The film strives to be as realistic as possible by paying attention to details and having an unhasty, deliberate pace, while at the same time maintaining its theatrical, literary characteristic, for example through its use of music, long shots of New York and through the incorporation of poetry and opera sequences. Throw into this an amazing performance by the lead actress and a thought-provoking element and ‘Margaret’ becomes a worth watching and underrated film. 7/10