A film that almost never was – spending 6 years in post-production hell and a theatrical release worldwide so limited it’s embarrassing – more of a work in progress than a complete piece of art but nonetheless an exhausting thump in the chest – in the best sense of the phrase. An operatic slugger of a film, Margaret is Kenneth Lonergan’s long awaited follow up to the stunning You Can Count on Me.
A precocious teenager, Lisa (Anna Paquin) witnesses an horrific bus accident and her quest to find the true guilty party stems from the slight role she played in the accident. Lisa is a regular modern day teenager, smart-assed and expectant and adamantly sure of herself. She has political debates in class, flirts with teachers, rebels against her mother and strives for her absent father’s waning affections. She is brazen and straightforward, ferocious in her convictions and yet fractured and emotional. Lisa is a refreshingly human creation, and Paquin steamrolls throughout the film, proving that her Oscar win as an 11 year old was no accident. As her mother J Smith-Cameron is perfect as a working actress, struggling to maintain a connection with her angsty daughter, the final scene genuinely wrenches the heart valves. The rest of the supporting cast are all solid (although it must be said, I found Jeannie Berlin as the friend of the accident victim a touch over the top, by the end I kind of wanted to slap her down), including Matt Damon, Matthew Broderick, Kieran Culkin, Mark Ruffalo, Rosemarie DeWitt and Jean Reno but for me the stand out was Allison Janney. As the bus crash victim, watching her die was so uncomfortably real I was writhing in my seat. I have always known Janney as an outstanding actress, but this is one of the best scenes of acting chops I have ever seen – bitch knows how to die.
Lisa starts to unravel as the film progresses, her tentative emotions sporadically thrust about – fights with her mum, virginity loss with a strange boy, dangerously flirting with a teacher – in an attempt to feel something other than the guilt from the accident. She is young and vulnerable and unwilling to compromise. It’s this melodrama that fuels the film along, and I found it mesmerising.
As I mentioned before, the film does bear the scars of post-production torture. Cut in the end by Martin Scorsese after Lonergan was fired by the producers for dilly dallying for 5 years, at a theatrical release of 150 mins, I felt the film was either half an hour too long, or half an hour too short. I wanted either more or less of seemingly superfluous characters like Matthew Broderick and Matt Damon’s teachers, Lisa’s friends, the bus driver (Ruffalo) and his wife (DeWitt), and Jean Reno’s bizarre love interest for the mother. I adored the music by Nico Muhly and beautifully shot by Ryszard Lenczewski, the film is sensually intoxicating. I was exhausted by the end, but I was also left wanting more, which for a two and a half hour drama is extraordinary. More of a piece of art in progress, I honestly look forward to seeing the true director’s cut on DVD.