Margaret (2011)

Kenneth Lonergan | 3hr 6min

When Margaret wrapped shooting in 2005, it was its famously troubled post-production that began to take over its legacy. While studios insisted on a cut under 150 minutes, Kenneth Lonergan maintained that 3 hours was necessary to maintain the integrity of his artistic vision. Through countless delays and lawsuits, the battle raged on for years, until both versions were eventually released in 2011 and 2012 respectively.

So, is the additional half hour that Lonergan fought so hard for entirely necessary? Without having seen the studio cut, it is hard to say. This isn’t exactly a lean narrative, but the operatic weight of Lisa’s emotional turmoil can be felt in its epic scale, blowing up every emotion to larger-than-life proportions. Such wild fluctuations are carried confidently by Anna Paquin in this loud, effusive role, bringing a performative quality to Lisa’s attempts at artificially drawing meaning from senseless tragedy. As tiresome as her talking and arguing in circles may be, it strongly indicative of a young woman who values her voice above all else.

A big, emotive, and complex performance from Anna Paquin. Lisa isn’t always a likeable character, but she is fascinating in all her obnoxious flaws.

When it comes to Lonergan’s rich, layered screenplay, this is a film which belongs far more to the era of the mid-2000s than the early 2010s, as Lisa’s emotional journey of guilt, angst, rage, and growth speaks directly to a specific kind of trauma that unified New Yorkers in the wake of 9/11. She is not the only person implicated in or affected by the devastating death of a woman walking through the streets of Manhattan, but it does take on a much more dramatic significance in her life than many others involved. With the mindset of an emotionally immature, dismissive teenager she can keep denying responsibility, but as she comes to face up to her culpability, she finds her life intertwining with other strangers bound together by a common tragedy.

The deceased woman, Monica, has only a few minutes of screen time, and yet the big name casting of Alison Janney in this part effectively establishes her as the centre around which the rest of the drama revolves. Her death, set in motion by the recklessness of Americans, becomes Lonergan’s perfect metaphor for the 9/11 attacks, and the fallout is similarly messy. How much blame can one person alone shoulder for this? Must those whose lives have been cut short be held up as beacons of lost innocence? Monica’s good friend, Emily, speaks of her as a tough but kind person, and yet in an early phone call with her cousin, Abigail, she is painted out as difficult and selfish. It would be easy to offer unconditional sympathy to Monica and every other character who suffers so intensely, and yet contradictions such as these only serve to throw us off from any conventional expressions of grief. These are imperfect, thorny humans bearing obnoxious flaws, and while these often challenge our efforts to connect with them, they also effectively ground this story in a complicated, bitter reality.

Behind the camera, Lonergan is no great stylist, but the careful consideration he puts into repeating scenes of heated classroom discussions, opera, and cutaways of New York streets and architecture is crucial to the emotional resonance of Lisa’s story. Through these familiar beats, we tune into how parts of her identity shift over time, particularly in her attitude towards opera as an entirely dull affair. Perhaps it is the way she learns to wrestle with how other people’s emotional states are inextricably tied to her own, or the lesson she receives in listening to others speak, but there is a gradual appreciation that mounts within her for the unique experience of sitting in an audience of hundreds, and sharing communal feelings of pain, anger, and elation being expressed by a single person.

Marvellous shots of New York in cutaways throughout Margaret, reminding us of the larger world continuing to exist outside of Lisa’s immediate perspective.

While she certainly learns what it means to mature, there are some behaviours which remain intrinsic and unchangeable in Lisa’s being. This hot-headed student who we saw towards the start of the film arguing with a fellow classmate over the political causes of 9/11 is still participating in similar debates three hours later, just as fiery as ever.

By its very design as an educational safe space, the classroom becomes a microcosm of the world at large, allowing confrontations such as these over weighty subjects, while sheltering them from any real consequences. In one English lesson, Lonergan is very purposeful in his selection of a Shakespeare quote which compares humans to gods as “flies to wanton boys.” When one student offers his interpretation of this passage as signifying the inability of humans in grasping a universe beyond their comprehension, it is somewhat ironic that the teacher shuts him down so forcefully, instead asserting that his own analysis regarding its relation to the insignificance of the individual against the cosmos is the correct one.

As this quote applies to Lisa’s own life, there is truth in both readings. She may be both blind and inconsequential to the larger universe, but as she realises, at least one of those is fixable. All throughout Margaret, Lonergan draws our attention to the dialogue of strangers overlapping with the main drama in a sprawling, Altman-esque fashion, effectually pulling us away from Lisa’s “adolescent self-dramatisation”. Lisa may like to believe her life is an opera, as Emily so bluntly puts it, and this may indeed be a reflection of her own overwrought, self-centred hysteria. But it is only through this process of understanding how real trauma is experienced and managed that she can overcome such delusions of self-importance, and in the final minutes of this epic drama, finally allow herself to be moved by an emotion expressed by someone other than herself.

Lisa discovers an opera beyond her own life, finally in tune with her ability to empathise.

Margaret is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.

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