Wednesday, 21 December 2011
When a completed film spends years gathering dust before a perfunctory release it's usually because the studio behind it is aware said film isn't any good. It's odd then that Kenneth Lonergan's 'Margaret', shot in 2006 and just released at the tail end of 2011, should be earning so many rave reviews from critics. Apparently its time in cinema purgatory was the result of a protracted legal clash between the writer-director and 20th Century Fox over the final cut, with Martin Scorsese and long-serving editor Thelma Schoonmaker eventually brought in to mediate between the two - producing a final cut which runs at two and a half hours. The result is one of the year's most emotionally affecting and thought-provoking dramas - even if its protagonist is comfortably one of the most infuriating screen creations of recent memory.
The drama exists principally in the "moral gymnasium" of Lisa Cohen, a high school student played by a fresh-faced Anna Paquin, who is the unwitting cause of a traffic accident which sees a woman (Allison Janney) killed by a speeding bus - the immediate aftermath of which is truly, utterly harrowing. Lonergan's sprawling follow-up to 2000's 'You Can Count On Me' is chiefly about taking responsibility for your actions - something Lisa spends about two hours and twenty minutes singularly failing to do, intruding on and causing trouble in several other people's lives in the process. Her mother (J. Smith-Cameron), a successful Broadway actress, bares the brunt of her contemptuous attitude and insensitivity most fully, though a mild-mannered English teacher (Matthew Broderick), a hunky "math" teacher (Matt Damon) and the friend's and family of the deceased also have to deal with her inexhaustible pouting, arguing and self-important drivel. And firmly in her cross-hairs is Mark Ruffalo as the bus driver who Lisa is determined to see punished for the accident in order to assuage her own guilt.
Lisa is a brilliantly written character. She's truly horrific, yet she isn't a caricature and Lonergan's treatment of her is infinitely humane. I even related to her a little: she's a perfectly observed example of youthful know-it-all-ness. She literally has an answer for everything, never listens to anybody and asserts half-formed, confused opinions about the world as if they are ironclad facts - often seeming foolish in the process (such as when she vents her frustration with an extremely helpful detective by irrelevantly chiding him about the history of racially motivated police brutality). She consistently chooses her friends with unfailing superficiality, being nasty to both the boy who earnestly likes her (John Gallagher, Jr.) and Broderick's affable teacher, whilst sucking up to the cool kid (Kieran Culkin) and Damon's square-jawed hunk. If that reads like a cliché, then it's one Lonergan survives because he writes all of these people equally nice, rather than creating any goodies and baddies. It's more important what Lisa projects onto these people, without consideration of their feelings, than who they actually are.
'Margaret' is a brilliantly conceived character study and never less than compelling as a look at life in the shadow of tragedy, even if it's theme rich and character packed to the point of distension (I haven't even mentioned the incongruity of Jean Reno as Colombian lothario Ramon). But conceived in the more immediate aftermath of 9/11, it's disquieting how relevant it remains to the political moment given its protracted post-production period. Set in New York, with heavy emphasis placed on the city, there are frequent heated exchanges about the rights and wrongs of American foreign policy between Lisa and a Syrian classmate. Here Lisa's refusal to at least share responsibility for the accident is presented as having moral equivalence to her nation's emotional, reactionary blindness towards the human cost of the "war on terror". The fact that this element of the film still registers (even a reference to a disliked "current President" survives the change in administrations) is a monument to how little has changed in the last half-decade.
'Margaret' is rated '15' by the BBFC and on a limited release in the UK now.