by Allan Fish
(USA 2011/2012 186m) DVD1
No cowboy hats in the Upper West Side
p Sydney Pollack, Scott Rudin, Gary Gilbert, Anthony Minghella d/w Kenneth Lonergan ph Ryszard Lenczewski ed Annie McCabe m Nico Muhly art James Donahue
Anna Paquin (Lisa Cohen), J.Smith-Cameron (Joan, her mother), Jeannie Berlin (Emily), Mark Ruffalo (Maretti), Jean Reno (Ramon), Sarah Steele (Becky), Matt Damon (Mr Aaron), Matthew Broderick (John), Allison Janney (Monica), Kieran Culkin (Paul), John Gallagher Jnr (Darren), Aidem (Abigail), Rosemarie Dewitt (Mrs Maretti),
The long awaited second film of Kenneth Lonergan had been shot in 2005, but only surfaced in 2011 after various lawsuits in a cut which was anonymously assembled by Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker. (In the time that passed in between, two of its producers – Pollack and Minghella – had passed away.) That original cut of Margaret was a series of affecting moments, but didn’t hang together as a whole. This extended cut still doesn’t hang together quite, but the impact makes one realise it should never quite hang together, for that would suggest neatness, and Margaret is a film about disorder and ambiguity. Even the title is a vague reference to a poem by Gerald Manley Hopkins.
Paquin plays Lisa, a seventeen year old girl from a self-described over-privileged liberal Jewish household. Her mother Joan is a stage actress wanting her latest play to be a success. She has a scholarship, has a boy called Darren so tongue-tied in love with her that he stutters out a date request and is about to go on a trip with her father to a ranch. Wandering her local haunts for a cowboy hat with no success, she sees one just like she wants on a bus driver’s head. As he’s driving off she tries to get his attention, which she eventually does, but in doing so he takes his eye off the road, runs a red light and fatally injures a middle-aged woman. Lisa holds the woman as she dies in the street, but she doesn’t report the driver for causing the accident because she knows she was partly culpable. But the accident begins to make her lose control, any interest in school, makes her seek out sex with not only a willing druggie deflowerer but with one of her teachers and try to get justice by having the bus driver fired and changing her statement.
Lisa is certainly not a likeable figure, but dislikeable in ways that many teens of that age are, evasive, blunt, cocksure, making rash decisions without thinking them through and going off in a tantrum when things don’t quite turn out as they hoped. One sees reasons for her behaviour in the break-up of her parents’ marriage, but she takes it out on her mother because she’s there and available. One would be forgiven for thinking that actors of the calibre of Ruffalo, Broderick and Damon are given little to do but act, as Lisa is accused of encouraging, as supporting characters in her own opera. From the outset Lonergan often doesn’t focus on what we want to focus on, so we see but don’t hear Lisa in conversation while hearing passing exchanges from people in adjacent diner booths or flats. It builds a sense of frustration, but one can see that there will be a payoff here, not in the form of a conventional ending but in the fact that Lisa’s manner can only end one way, in a sudden, impromptu breakdown at a seemingly random moment. When it occurs it’s at the opera watching ‘Tales of Hoffmann’. Lisa has never looked more composed or Paquin more stunning than when she descends the staircase of the Met, so that when she falls into tears while Renee Fleming sings on stage, rather than have supporting characters in her life opera, the opera itself plays second fiddle to the real drama taking place in the aisles. You feel the emotion drain out of her for we have felt it, too, frustration both at Lisa (her treatment of those around her) and with her (the legal situation regarding the accident, so when asked “what’s her angle?” she looks incredulous). Like a typical teen, she’s an idealist, and like all idealists, she can be as annoying as hell, but it makes her all the more real, and Paquin in turn gives a turn of such remarkable, astonishing nuance as to make one mourn that it is otherwise only in the bayous of Charlene Harris’ Bon Temps that she has gained recognition.