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Thomas Bo Larsen,
A woman's life is derailed en route to a potentially lucrative summer job. When her car breaks down, and her dog is taken to the pound, the thin fabric of her financial situation comes ... See full summary »
Margaret centers on a 17-year-old New York City high-school student who feels certain that she inadvertently played a role in a traffic accident that has claimed a woman's life. In her attempts to set things right she meets with opposition at every step. Torn apart with frustration, she begins emotionally brutalizing her family, her friends, her teachers, and most of all, herself. She has been confronted quite unexpectedly with a basic truth: that her youthful ideals are on a collision course against the realities and compromises of the adult world. Written by
On the day of its cinema release, Kenneth Lonergan's long-gestating drama was the most successful film in the UK. Problem was, it only opened on one screen. The story of Margaret's production is likely a fascinating story in itself, not least because of Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker's input into the final edit, which was presumably a return favour for Lonergan's work on the screenplay for Gangs of New York. But I'll focus on the fascinating story that Lonergan has told with this film.
Ostensibly the tale centres on a New York schoolgirl named Lisa (Anna Paquin, defining her young adulthood just as she defined herself in childhood with The Piano), who inadvertently causes a fatal road accident. What follows is the emotional aftermath, fought outwardly with her mother, as a moral and ethical war wages within her hormone-ravaged body.
The performances are excellent throughout, particularly Paquin and J. Smith-Cameron as the daughter and mother caught in gravitational flux. Jean Reno gives fine support as the sad-sack Ramon, while Matthew Broderick delivers the poem (by Gerard Manley Hopkins) that provides the film's title, while suggesting the entire life of his character by the way he eats a sandwich. It's that kind of film.
I recently wrote a review of Winter's Bone, which I described as an anti-youth movie. Margaret could be a companion piece in this regard, cautioning against the bright-eyed naivety of youthful independence, and promoting the importance of family. Like Winter's Ree, Lisa is a lost soul; unlike Ree, Lisa is not someone we admire. But she is always in focus; Lonergan expects not for us to like her, only to understand her. In maintaining this focus, Lonergan himself achieves the admirable: weaving a narrative whose minute details and labyrinthine arguments mirror the broader existential vista against which they are dwarfed.
Margaret goes deeper than Winter's Bone, delivering something pleasingly unexpected: a kind of Sartrean modern fable about the isolating nature of subjectivity. Like her actor mother on the stage, and like us all in our semi-waking lives, Lisa is the main player in her great opera. She performs the social functions that enable her to cling to a sense of belongingness, but something gnaws at her soul. And when, after the accident, she seeks some kind of meaning, she is met at once by indifference, before being seduced by those very institutions that make indifference normal. Nothing in the material world satisfies Lisa; nothing can match her aspirations. The suggestion here, I feel, is that our despair emerges from the disparity between that which we hope for and that which reality can deliver.
No wonder it took so long to find its way to a single UK screen: a three-hour existentialist play is a tough sell. Ten years after the towers sank to Ground Zero, Margaret joins There Will Be Blood, The Assassination of Richard Nixon, and (for some) Zodiac in the pantheon of modern classics that map the American psyche in the post-9/11 world.
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