Deconstructing \'Margaret\'

Plagued by rumours that it would never assemble a final cut, writer/director Kenneth Lonergan\'s epic drama \'Margaret\' - originally shot in 2005 - is finally receiving a limited release. We delve right into its messy, rich and ultimately rewarding story...

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Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan\'s Margaret is one of the most difficult films of the year, and not simply due to its troubled post-production. Shot in 2005, this post 9/11 drama has suffered several setbacks: the loss of two producers (Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack), arguments over the final cut and multiple lawsuits (seriously, don\'t ask). Since production, most of the film\'s key players have significantly evolved in their careers, too: star Anna Paquin became a surprising sex symbol on True Blood, character actor Mark Ruffalo became an unsurprising Oscar-nominee, and several supporting actors have seriously upped their screen profiles.

Most intriguingly, Lonergan - the playwright who brought these actors together - has not produced a film since, despite the acclaim and goodwill inspired by his first film, the fine drama You Can Count On Me. This is frustrating, as the filmmaker has made an extraordinarily complex film with Margaret, a challenging work that puts the easily digestible Oscar-bait films of last year to shame (one-idea concepts like Jane Eyre, The Artist and The Ides of March). This new version is not the director\'s cut, but a two-and-a-half-hour version supervised by Martin Scorsese and his editor Thelma Schoonmaker (Lonergan\'s cut will be available on Blu-ray). However, despite these issues, Margaret remains adult filmmaking: political, daring, difficult and more than a little messy. There are no obvious social messages or Stephen Daldry-like platitudes in Margaret. Nothing is so easy in this film, especially not Lisa (played with fearsome intensity by a never-better Paquin), a protagonist that provokes difficult questions about the role of morality, judgement and connection in contemporary America.

Margaret is set in a post-9/11, pre-Obama New York (obviously, the line \"I\'m not necessarily like a fan of all the Presidents of the United States, especially the current one\" obviously offered a different reading in its intended 2005 context). Lisa is a privileged, self-absorbed, sarcastic teenager who specialises in giving her mother Joan (played by Lonergan\'s real-life wife, J. Smith Cameron), friends, teachers (including Matt Damon\'s nice-guy Mr. Aaron and Matthew Broderick\'s pathetic and prissy John) and her fellow students a hard time. Whilst shopping for a cowboy hat, Lisa tries to gain the attention of the working-class bus driver Maretti (Ruffalo), and unwittingly causes the death of Monica (played vividly by Allison Janney in a striking cameo), an event that causes Lisa to ruminate upon her - and the driver\'s - actions.

Primarily, Margaret is a story about disconnection, a confronting concept that the film explores unsentimentally. Each scene involves some kind of miscommunication, in which a character ignores, misinterprets or simply fails to register the emotional needs of the other character(s) in the scene. In this regard, the bus accident is a perfect distillation of this theme. Lisa and Maretti cause the accident because they failed to read one another successfully, and the other witnesses are equally inept in dealing with the physical and emotional consequences of the violence. Despite their good intentions, the onlookers fail to deliver the victim the emotional investment that she needs: Lisa frequently mishears the woman, two men bicker over what to do with her injuries (in a moment of black comedy, Lisa screams \"Are you kidding me?\") and all a young man can offer is his mobile phone. None of these people are bad, however they are simply inadequate in dealing with this horrific situation, and their insecurities manifest themselves into further conflict with others.

This applies, too, to the film\'s fraught depiction of family and relationships between characters who are expected to have intimate relationships with one another. In a scene from the script (absent from the film), Joan comments to her daughter, \"I know I\'m supposed to know what you\'re doing right now, but if there\'s some kind of hidden message here I\'m not getting it.\" Laying out the film\'s subtext, this moment highlights the characters\' mutual misunderstanding of one another, and their respective desires. Joan wants and tries to understand her daughter, yet - due to many factors, including her difficult love life, professional pressures, personal anxieties - cannot provide whatever it is that Lisa needs (or thinks she does).

Thus, internal conflict - insecurity, doubt, guilt, fear - inevitably creates interpersonal conflict in the scene, a concern which is explored throughout the film. Some critics and screenwriters have labelled Lonergan\'s film \"disorganised\" or \"a well-intentioned mess.\" From the outside, yes, it seems more than a little indulgent to make a film about a car accident that is over two hours (let alone the three hour-running time that Lonergan wanted). However, Lonergan\'s sprawling approach contributes to not only our understanding of Lisa (her psychology, how she relates to others), but also to her world, so that all of the supporting roles are richly developed, with relatable flaws and credible mannerisms. Later - in a moment of bold self-reflexiveness by Lonergan - Monica\'s caustic friend Emily (Oscar-nominee Jeannie Berlin) informs Lisa, \"We are not supporting characters in the fascinating story of your life\", and the multi-faceted screenplay supports this assertion.

To rewrite or re-edit the film as a 90-minute feature would seriously unbalance the drama of most scenes, and - ironically - indulge Lisa even further by giving her more credibility over the other characters. For instance, in the film, Lonergan repeatedly returns to the image of Lisa\'s mother (an actress) on the stage, and gives her a scene in which she and her co-stars exchange impersonations after a show. Precious choices, perhaps? A sign of a director highlighting his knowledge of the theatre rather than engaging with the needs of his narrative? Well, normally, these scenes would seem extraneous. However, in Margaret, these images suggest a world beyond Lisa\'s present drama, accentuating the difficulty for other people in providing Lisa with what she needs - understanding, insight - when their own lives are challenging enough without her. For instance, there is a scene in which Lisa responds tersely to her mother\'s inquisitions, telling Joan, \"I\'d rather not talk about it when you have one foot out the door.\" In any other film (say, a 90-minute version), the mother would seem vain and self-absorbed for leaving for her show. However, because of the sustained depiction of Joan\'s work, the viewer instantly understands the mother\'s requirement to leave her apartment. Thus, this is a much more difficult (and infinitely more interesting) scene than it normally would be, as there is no absolutely \'right\' or \'wrong\' choice for her mother to make in this instance.

Paquin\'s performance beautifully captures the self-pity and arrogance of someone who feels that she is the only one who understands \'right\' and \'wrong\'. Lisa has no need-to-please eagerness that afflicts some of Lisa\'s classmates. All the acting is incredible (if given a suitable marketing push, the stage-actress Cameron would probably have been an Oscar-nominee as a result of this film), but Paquin does a phenomenal job in depicting the self-justifying type-A personality of this intelligent, but naïve young woman. A later confrontation between Lisa and Emily reveals the teenager\'s extraordinary naivety. Angry at the adult\'s unwillingness to indulge her emotional fantasies, Lisa lashes out, and Paquin is uncomfortably good at playing her rationalisation: a frightening mixture of self-justifying ego and an unformed identity.

In the film, Lisa\'s callousness extends to her troubled sexual relationships, as her struggles to truly understand the trauma of the accident - and her role within it - fractures her relationships with others. Lisa cruelly rejects the affection of her good friend Darren (a fragile John Gallagher) and unthinkingly initiates a sexual relationship with the confident, but emotionally unavailable Paul (a droll and very funny Kieran Culkin). Because of her own anxieties, Lisa is unable to sustain a healthy, giving relationship with either of these young men, instead flitting between the adolescent security offered by Darren and the more dangerous, adult sexuality of Paul. Interestingly, the script also hints that Sarah Steele\'s character, Becky, has fallen for her as well, but the film skims over this detail, instead suggesting Becky\'s pain in a single shot in a cut-down early scene. Perhaps Scorsese and Schoonmaker felt that the Darren relationship already established Lisa\'s insensitivity towards others, and her struggles to relate with her old friends after the accident? Alternatively, maybe they felt that the sexual ambiguity offered by Becky\'s crush was not developed sufficiently, making it difficult to justify this sub-plot\'s inclusion in this sprawling film?

All these students feel some form of affection for Lisa (although Paul seems less emotionally dependent on Lisa), however, it is only Damon\'s Mr. Aaron who seems to recognise the depth of Lisa\'s turmoil, and the needs of her psychological development. Played with quiet restraint by Damon, Mr. Aaron seems like a well-rounded and compassionate teacher, gauging the forces governing Lisa\'s changing moods, registering the hurt beneath her sarcasm or surliness. In contrast with Lisa\'s more self-conscious and hypersensitive friends, Mr. Aaron shows little sign of insecurity, inspiring exaltation and attraction from the undeveloped and immature Lisa. Whilst the other characters allow their internal conflicts to reveal themselves in their passive aggressive encounters with others, Mr. Aaron is perhaps the only character who frequently masks his own insecurities. For once, Lisa has someone who doesn\'t misread or misjudge her intentions, but understands the subtext of her actions. (Then again, nothing in Lonergan\'s film is quite so simple, and later developments in his arc undermine a simple reading of him as a teacher for Lisa, whilst a deleted scene from the script suggests that her poor choices and rationalisations have negatively affected his sense of self).

Visually, Lonergan and Polish cinematographer Ryszard Lenczewski (Intermission, My Summer of Love) make beautiful use of long lenses, creating a distant, but intimate look for the film. Matching the script\'s sympathetic, but critical look at Lisa, the unburnished photography subtly suggests the characters\' internal and external conflicts, from the sharp collection of POV shots that illustrate the central accident to the caustic close-ups in any of the film\'s disturbing confrontations (especially an intense confrontation between Lisa and the bus driver). This is most evident in a striking crane shot very late in the film. As Lisa runs from (yet-another) argument, the camera pulls out, simultaneously presenting Lisa\'s fiery emotional state through Nico Muhly\'s propulsive, orchestral score whilst also suggesting psychological distance from her: as she runs into a hectic New York landscape, the camera moves away from her. Unlike most direction, Lonergan\'s choices are always informed and intelligent, accentuating our understanding of Lisa\'s need to communicate and her failure to do so.

Like Asghar Farhadi\'s similarly themed A Separation - another challenging film about the emotional and physical consequences of violence upon a group of characters, and their inability to relate to one another - Margaret is a very difficult film to quantify. It has some laughs, but you would not call it a comedy (although Culkin and Matthew Broderick - in small roles - inspire more laughs than the entire ensemble of The Dictator). The accident suggests a thriller, but Lonergan\'s film only hints at physical tension. Margaret jumps between the adult and teen worlds, so it is not exactly a \'teen\' film, either, at least not in the mould of a John Hughes or Nicholas Ray. In the production notes, Lonergan describes the film as a \"kind of a teen epic - a documentary urban opera built on the everyday details, frustrations and obstacles that make real life so challenging, so funny and so painful.\" It is a difficult description - messy, convoluted, built on a series of seemingly incompatible contrasts - but one that matches the impressive ambitions of this powerful film.

Margaret will be released at Cinema Nova in Melbourne from June 14.

 

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