The problems in the production of Kenneth Lonergan’s ‘Margaret’ are so bizarre and unusual that they’re probably worthy of their own film. After his debut success with ‘You Can Count On Me’ in 2000, writer/director Kenneth Lonergan filmed his next project Margaret in 2005 with much anticipation and a strong cast including Anna Paquin, Mark Ruffalo and Matt Damon. But due to the studio’s dissatisfaction with the version and length of it he provided, it was stuck in limbo for several years. By the time it was released in 2011, two of the film’s producers (Anthony Minghella, Sydney Pollack) had passed way several years before.
This led to a sense of fascination around the film when it was finally released. It has gotten generally favourable notices with the consensus being that it was worth the wait. And after seeing the film, it is a sentiment I agree with.
The film centres around a fairly well-off 17 year-old New York student Lisa (Paquin) whose parents are divorced (her mother is a successful stage actress and her father lives in Los Angeles). Her early scenes show her to be on the surface a confident – verging on conceited – character but that veneer is shattered when she inadvertently causes a bus crash that kills a middle-aged woman. Devastated by the incident, Lisa tries to obtain redemption and justice by targeting the bus driver involved (Mark Ruffalo) but things don’t go as planned. Meanwhile, her erratic behaviour leads to consequences for friends and family.
The irony of this film’s production stalling over it being too long is that even at 150 minutes or so, this film never dragged. Certainly, it could’ve been cut by approximately 30 minutes without losing the narrative essence but this is missing the point. ‘Margaret’ isn’t a film driven by narrative, but by characterisation and on that front it is a triumph and a pleasure to follow. The great strength of this film is that not only is the central character of Lisa fascinating to follow, but so are 7-8 supporting characters. They all are clearly detailed with a convincing backstory and you want to know more about them, the sign of a quality film.
The film’s leisurely style and length really suits Lonergan’s style of filmmaking as he lets conversations between characters develop naturally and organically. Some scenes work better than others but overall it creates a good base for interesting characterisation. Probably his most skilled direction is of the scene of the bus fatality incident itself which is done in basically in real time covering several minutes. This long scene effectively captures the horror that Lisa goes through and in its own way, the scene is more devastating and frightening than you’re likely to experience in most horror films.
There are many themes in ‘Margaret’ but probably the main one is the naivety and limitations of youth. In one of the scenes at Lisa’s school we see one of the students with great sincerity say that those her age are the most valued members of society because they’re not held back by the cynicism that older generations accumulate. But everything in this film is against this belief as those of Lisa’s age are shown to be vastly ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of modern life. We see this at a broad level with students debating terrorism and Middle East problems without sophistication or subtlety, and instead being reduced to generalisations and naïve idealism before it degenerates into a slanging match.
And on an acute level we see this with the examination of Lisa. Her quest to have ‘justice’ done over the bus accident death is well-meaning to an extent, but also driven by self-serving interests to absolve herself of blame she is too immature to deal with. Her inability overcome the roadblocks and agendas in her quest for justice sees her constantly lose her composure and her selfishness alienates even those she befriends (such as the dead woman’s best friend, well played by Jeanine Berlin).
For this film to work it needs to a compelling central character and Paquin provides that with her portrayal of Lisa. She’s not afraid to make her character unlikable and even unsympathetic as it makes her character appear truthful and fascinating to follow. She’s a teenager out of her depth dealing with major issues and without much adult support, so it’s understandable that the strain would show and her more unsavoury personality traits would bubble to the surface. It is a high-class performance which matches the quality of the material she’s provided with.
As is inevitably with its protracted production history, there are issues with ‘Margaret’s structure. On occasion it’s clear that scenes end where they weren’t originally supposed to end. As a result, supporting characters such as Lisa’s teacher (played by Matt Damon) seem incomplete in their composition.
Despite these imperfections, ‘Margaret’ is an impressive work full of quality. It may have been made in 2005 but there’s no better film I’ve seen so far at the cinema in 2012.