Reviews - Margaret
Reviewed By John Stakes
Lonergan's original version of his teenage drama ran for three hours and immediately ran into difficulties with its American producers who, like their contemporaries, quickly develop apoplexy when a film's running time exceeds the average US adult film attention span of one hour forty eight minutes. Four litigious years later a compromised one hundred and fifty minutes' version received a limited release in US cinemas followed by an outing in one lone London cinema and was thence consigned to DVD format in July 2012, which usually signals a film's final death throws.
Then there is the question of the film's title which oddly, in adopting a female forename, ignores that of the film's heroine Lisa, Lonegan preferring to take inspiration from the name of the young girl Margaret from Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins' "Spring and Fall" who "will yet weep and know why".
The film's baggage masks what lies behind: a masterpiece. Rarely has cinema so well ventilated the trials and tribulations of youth and distilled them with such clarity and intelligence. For two and a half hours Lonergan's own screenplay kept this reviewer nothing short of engrossed and frequently enthralled. There was a welcome absence of stereotyping in the characters and a script eschewed of cliché and the usual sentimentality so frequently found in over the pond productions.
All the characters effortlessly inhabited their roles none more so than Anna Paquin's Lisa the 17 years' old "over-privileged liberal Jew" as she described herself, whose teenage woes were routine until one fateful day when she witnessed a motor accident to which her own actions had contributed, and found herself cradling the victim as she died. How she tried to cope with her emotions and face up to the life changing consequences formed the film's core.
Lisa proved to be intelligent, articulate, resourceful, manipulative and candid. Her sense of her own guilt fuelled her desire to see others take responsibility for their own actions, particularly bus driver Gerald, but her adolescent naivety meant she was ill-prepared for an adult world which had adjusted to the realities of life. One of Lisa's classmates epitomised the problem for the young when claiming that power should be vested in people of her age because they had ideals, were caring and had not been adulterated by experience.
The exchanges between Lisa and her mother Joan, a successful Broadway actress were sublime, helped by a script which was profound, humane and honest and through which their respective traits and weaknesses were tellingly revealed. Each scene took the audience off in directions which could not be anticipated neatly wrong-footing its audience and avoiding the formulaic, the verbal edges so finely crafted that on several occasions but one word separated tolerance from conflict.
Both performances were Oscar worthy: Anna Paquin clearly invested her part with a vibrant emotional naturalism which became effortlessly involving and took this reviewer far beyond the point of performance appreciation. Paquin has come on quite a journey since "The Piano". J Smith- Cameron's Joan more than fulfilled the requirements for a supporting actor by complementing the role of Lisa whilst delivering her own individual performance of a working mother required to undertake all manner of balancing acts both emotionally and practically. Superb. It is highly likely that whoever may be nominated for this year's Oscars or Baftas will come nowhere near to matching these two. Paquin's nomination for Best Actress by Chicago Film Critics is scant recognition or consolation.
The minor characters were no less impressive creating some memorable scenes which held up despite occasional less than sensitive editing as thirty minutes were removed from the final print. How this reviewer wished they had been restored. Lonergan was fully artistically vindicated in his initial desire to take three hours to play out this period in Lisa's life, a decision which was to create far more of a wrangle than that faced by the slickly smooth civil litigator hired to bring a lawsuit against the bus company. There was not a second of superfluous time and even when the camera took us away briefly from the domestic conflict to take in the Manhattan skyline, it was as if the director sensed the need for breathing space between some disquieting and unsettling scenes, none more so than the bus crash itself, arguably one of the most harrowing in a film of this type.
The committee is to be congratulated in bringing Lonergan's fine film to a local screen. A large Keswick audience scored it a popular success and it has clearly whetted appetites for the challenging season ahead. Next Sunday's film is the 2011 Palestinian "When Pigs have Wings". Now, how much does this title tell us?
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