[FILM: Review] Margaret
The backstory of Kenneth Lonergan’s plagued sophomore feature threatens to overshadow the film itself, and more interesting details are revealed the closer you look at it. For starters: it is being released seven years after shooting began; it has been the subject of at least two law suits (at least one of which involves Lonergan) about the final cut of the film; it stars Anna Paquin, Matt Damon, Mark Ruffalo, Allison Janney, Matthew Broderick and Kieran Culkin (who recently appeared in the Sydney stage season of This Is Our Youth); it is produced by Scott Rudin (The Social Network, No Country For Old Men), Sydney Pollack and the late Anthony Minghella; and it has an (exquisite) soundtrack by Nico Muhly (also recently in Sydney, for Vivid LIVE – where his considerable talent as a composer was overshadowed by Sufjan Stevens).
Then there is the fact that Martin Scorsese (who described a 2006 cut of the film as a ‘masterpiece’) and his long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker tried to rescue Lonergan from an agonising editing process by doing their own cut – one of at least three extant cuts, alongside Lonergan’s and another by editor Dylan Tichenor (There Will Be Blood; Magnolia).
It’s one of Lonergan’s cuts showing in cinemas now – and at 150 minutes, the sprawling, symphonic narrative gives you every sense of how the filmmaker might have gotten lost. Many great performances and characters compete, with a powerhouse cast relegated to peripheral roles in the vortex surrounding 17-year-old high-school student Lisa (Paquin), as she attempts to deal with the guilt of being responsible for the death of a middle-aged woman. Lonergan leaves little to the imagination, taking us through Lisa’s full cycle of experience and emotions, through long discursive tracts of dialogue, and through peripheral characters’ reactions to loss, conflict and guilt – from Lisa’s absentee father (played by Lonergan) and career-driven actress mother (played by Lonergan’s wife, J. Smith Cameron), to her teachers, friends and expanding web of acquaintances. Meanwhile, this thick narrative web is interlaced with literary and dramatic references, from Shakespeare to Gerard Manley Hopkins and opera.
Looking at this version of the film, you can feel Lonergan gunning for his personal Ulysses – something better suited to four hours than 150 minutes. He is simply not a ‘silver bullet’ filmmaker; as per his Academy Award-nominated debut feature You Can Count On Me, he is interested in representing the messy complexity of human interaction and relationships, rather than single-issue/character, easily reducible plots. And his instincts, in both films, are on the money – these are fascinating characters; not always likeable, and frequently frustrating to the point of alienation – but not quite. Margaret makes you want nothing so much as to see the ‘director’s cut’ version.