Hidden Gem: Margaret (2011)

Written by Siân Darling.

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Margaret (2011), released seven years after being shot in New York, is Kenneth Lonergan’s anticipated second directing release following his celebrated and Oscar-nominated, You Can Count on Me (2000).

The delayed release was caused by Lonergan’s resistance to the insistence of Fox Searchlight, that it must run under 150 minutes. After laborious edits and lawsuits, Margaret was released under Fox’s terms with Lonergan’s extended version (183 minutes), receiving DVD release the following year.

Margaret, obviously made with indomitable vision, is a multidimensional drama following a typically egocentric teenager, Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin), co-starring Matt Damon, Mark Ruffalo, Kieren Culkin, Olivia Thirbly and J Smith Cameron in post 9/11 New York.

A father figure once told me: “Crying serves only yourself. It makes you feel better whether it’s your tragedy or another’s.” Had someone said this to Lisa, I doubt she would have heard it through her wailing. We follow Lisa in her own melodrama, searching for her self-appointed starring role in ruling between right and wrong.

Scored by Nico Muhly, the film also takes us to two Operas where the music portrays Lisa’s subjective suffering and heroic determination to set things right after she is involved in an horrific bus incident that leaves a woman, Monica (Thirlby), dead.

Searching for a cowboy hat to wear on a family holiday that was promised by her re-married father, Lisa sees a bus driver, Gerald (Ruffalo), wearing one and runs alongside the bus asking where he got it. The driver is playing with her for sometime, letting her distract him, leading to the fatal incident.

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Riddled by a feeling of responsibility, Lisa first lies to the police to protect the driver. Her mother, Joan (Smith-Cameron), and Gerald argue that there is more to lose and therefore exacerbating the tragedy, by telling the truth. Lisa joins forces with Monica’s next of kin; her cousin, Abigail, and best friend, Emily, in a litigation against The Metropolitan Transit Authority. When it’s revealed that Abigail is only involved for the financial gain, Lisa again faces the disillusionment for humanity and left with the questions: is she the only one who wants the right thing? This stance of Lisa’s is the catalyst for Emily’s outburst. Emily, who doesn’t have the patience of a parent or culpable teacher, challenges Lisa by asking if meddling to do the right thing for the sake of Monica, despite the upheaval of emotions for Emily, is simply a guise to vindicate her own pain and her exhausting undertaking to be understood.

With the rude realisation that lying might not be as bad as she was raised to believe, given it seems the adults’ preferred option, Lisa is spinning in the disillusionment of the adult world she is rushing to join. She is contending with everyone to be understood, and seeks self-assertion in indifferently losing her virginity to a peer (Culkin) before falling pregnant to him, or possibly her teacher (Damon). Lisa fights incessantly with Joan, her single-mother working as an actress, who is struggling with her own assertion as a woman, and her daughter’s mounting distance towards her. The end of the film sees the two in an emotional embrace at an opera, to which anyone who survived an angry adolescence to become friends with their parents could relate and be moved to share this emotional release.

Lonergan’s aural directing is distinctive and sometimes, after the initial impact, distracting. The sound is not directional, so every peripheral conversation or street noise is picked up. Its effectiveness is great in reminding us that there is a world beyond Lisa’s, or our own, no matter how loud we scream above the blaring opera of a manipulated melodrama. The cinematography works in a similar way to the sound. There is a lot of focus on the landscape of New York, taking our attention away from the narrative, and again, reminding us there is a world beyond that in which we are immersed.

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Most people will never experience the horror that Lisa did, having a stranger die in her arms, but her isolation in the intensity of her emotions is far too common to be ignored. Margaret is an unswerving drive on that hilly road from the arrogance of adolescence towards the anxiety of adulthood.

The delayed and limited release (one screen in one cinema in the UK), risked Margaret being a lost gem of a lengthy drama. Having Lisa’s despair set in her own middle-class mayhem, with the intentional slow-paced, landscape portrait perspectives as distractions for the audience, Lonergan has perfectly depicted the relativity of tragedy. This unites us, the audience, in knowing that our pain, our drama, our story, is as big or small as anyone else’s, or what we make of it.

– S.D.