Margaret finished shooting in 2005. And, just six years of re-edits, studio-disputes and ugly legal battles later, it exploded into movie theatres up and down the UK. Well, actually, it exploded into just one cinema, in London, before gradually – gradually – being picked up elsewhere. Thankfully it’s tortuous beginnings are no reflection of the final product – which is as intellectually and emotionally compelling a film as ever deserved a smooth route to it’s audience.
The film centres around Lisa (Anna Paquin), a sharp-witted 17-year-old, whose seemingly harmless flirtation with a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo), leads to a horrific road accident. Her attempts to deal with her own guilt form the backbone of the narrative, as she bounces from one adult to another – her teacher (Matt Damon), her mother (J-Smith Cameron), and her father (director Kenneth Lonergan himself) amongst others, finding each as incapable of helping her as the next. All this is set against the backdrop of the usual trauma of adolescence, and a post 9/11 exploration of what it means to be responsible, and to take responsibility.
Given it’s history, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Margaret is still long (even at the compromised 2.5 hours instead of the original 3), but it is never less than extremely engaging. In large part, that’s down to truly stunning performances; Paquin’s portrayal of the naive and infuriating Lisa is superb – True Blood doesn’t know how lucky it is – and Jeannie Berlin as the grieving best friend of the deceased is heartrending; her eulogy is the highlight of the 150 minutes.
But the real masterpiece of the film is the way it deals with the isolation of people incapable of communicating with one another. Lisa is surrounded by potentially helpful relationships – a boy who adores her, a concerned father, an engaging teacher – but each one hits a brick wall. Her faltering attempts to connect with her preoccupied actress mother are particularly heartbreaking. Beautiful, swirling, panning shots of New York heighten the sense of being lost in anonymous white noise. You get the feeling that the only real communication for most of the film occurs in the eye contact between the bus driver and Lisa, moments after the accident – a moment vehemently denied by the driver himself. Lisa is lost and you feel it, deeply.
It doesn’t sound like an easy ride, but Margaret sides-steps self-indulgence or weepiness with well judged humour – and the post 9/11 underpinning is neither central nor preachy. There’s also a sense that if Lonergan had packed any more themes in, his movie would have exploded all over the edit suite floor. Which, in a sense, it did. But this iteration of Margaret stops short of bursting point, and the overall outcome is a superb combination of a painfully true coming-of-age drama and a dramatic exploration of “big” issues – each side bolstering the other to terrific effect.
Margaret isn’t a perfect film, but the emotional truth of it makes those complaints drop away. For two and a half hours you’ll be torn between opposing ethics, witness flawed individuals fail, disastrously, to understand each other (or even themselves), and be forced to reevaluate your own relationships in the process. You’ll leave the theatre reeling, for all the best reasons.