Saturday, February 18, 2012


New York City: An Operatic Stage Where Drama & Theater Are Born And Idealism & Innocence Die

Anna Paquin as Lisa Cohen in "Margaret", Kenneth Lonergan's epic moral drama. 
Myles Aronowitz/Fox Searchlight

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Saturday, February 18
, 2012

There's a moment midway through Kenneth Lonergan's epic drama "Margaret" where his "You Can Count On Me" star Matthew Broderick reads Gerard Manley Hopkins' 19th century poem "Spring And Fall: To A Young Child" to his high school class.  The poem symbolizes the inevitable clash between innocence and adulthood, one of the central themes of Mr. Lonergan's excellent film.  Margaret is the young child that Mr. Hopkins, who died at 45, mentions in his poem.  In the film 17-year-old Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) is Margaret's contemporary stand-in.

Or contemporary enough.  In "Margaret" it is New York City, 2005.  ("Flightplan" and "Roll Bounce", released that year, are the titles on a movie theater marquee.)   The specter of the World Trade Center attacks are still very fresh in the Big Apple air. Lisa lives with her divorced mother Joan (J. Smith-Cameron) and younger brother on Manhattan's Upper West side, in relative comfort and privilege.  An acerbic, angry and shrewd, razor-sharp teen, Lisa has the courage of her convictions, challenging everything she hears to exactitude in a discursive manner, a perfectionist trying to hit every note, leaving no stone unturned, much like Mr. Lonergan himself.  (Every recognizable actor in the film looks, well, obviously younger.)

Lisa gets a city bus driver's attention.  Her distractions contribute to a tragedy.  Lisa lies about the circumstances surrounding the tragedy but guilt and nightmares have her change course.  In between the two crucial episodes Lisa crosses the line with one of her private school teachers, debates a classmate repeatedly about 9/11/01, Jews, Muslims and Palestine, tenaciously seeks punishment for the bus driver's role in the tragedy and has the tense relationship with her mother you'd expect for a girl Lisa's age, predating though not unlike the tormented relationship between Natalie Portman and Barbara Hershey in "Black Swan".

Aside from the significant cast of players (including the director's wife Ms. Smith-Cameron and his good friend Mr. Broderick) "Margaret", a perfectly crafted film for the stage, is the big stage.  The onscreen audience -- the array of faces we see at the very start and throughout -- is a character in and of itself, as is New York City, which is the larger, giant stage Lisa's drama plays out on.  The events of Mr. Lonergan's film are theatrical, more so even than the physical settings of theater, notably New York's Metropolitan Opera House, whose stage cleverly comes full circle in verisimilitude in the film's climax. 

Ever the stage man, Mr. Lonergan crafts fantastic, crackling dialogue that is purely theatrical, with deliberate overreactions and quick-tempered dynamite.  As acted by a great cast "Margaret" comes alive with a cacophony of sound, interruption, observation, telephone calls, information, note-taking and address and phone-number writing, Hawksian cross-talk and spontaneous, argumentative banter.  "Margaret" boasts Lisa, a teen undergoing physical and psychological changes but seemingly fighting off adulthood with her powerful, single-minded sense of idealism.  Lisa barges rudely into the world of adults and their affairs rather than makes her own passage into adulthood.  In some ways Lisa is phenomenally naïve, in others calculating, in still others a strong, justice-minded woman who despises immorality even as she partakes in some risky behavior herself.

There are two distinct languages spoken in "Margaret": one of precision, mainly spoken by men, all of whom in this film have decisive, direction-oriented professions -- attorney, bus driver, teacher, police detective.  The second language is one of inexactness, mainly spoken by women, all of whom in the film have professions or occupations that are about exploring, expressing and questioning things -- stage actress, high school student.  Women continuously question men, who dogmatically explain their stances on things, almost always engaging in absolutes and certainties, which doesn't necessarily leave them on comfortable moral footing.

"Margaret", which flaunts moments of comedy amidst tension, is a rigorous study of linguistics and verbal cadences.  People are constantly explaining extemporaneously, articulating views that are shrill but also eloquent even if sometimes inexact and often impatient.  One teacher's exactitude and absolutism gets the better of him when his student interprets Shakespeare; the teacher is so busy being an authoritarian adult he forgets that people are entitled to their own interpretation of Shakespeare regardless of original meaning.  This continuous sparring between adults and children breeds a tension and a larger lesson about might making right, about rules being made up as people go along, about a child being wrong in an adult's world: wrong to question, wrong to assert, wrong to interrupt.  A police officer dismisses the incisive Lisa as "honey".  The moral center in some of the adults, especially some of the male authority figures, is polluted.

J. Smith-Cameron (left) as Joan and Anna Paquin as Lisa in Kenneth Lonergan's "Margaret".  
Myles Aronowitz/Fox Searchlight

As for the film's technical aspects are there editing problems?  Yes.  Does the film jump and meander with mismatched shots at times?  Are some of the points and themes repetitive?  Yes, but the director allows key dialogue sequences to breathe.  The film's faded, muted 1970s quality works and there's a dream-like feel to it.  In one scene the title of one of a group of books behind a character reads, "Removal From Reality", which perhaps signals or is a comment on Lisa's ill-fitting place in an adult world.  Lisa seeks an education but experiences one in the nuts and bolts of real life and not in the artificial stage of the classroom.  She challenges the hypocrisy in adults but at what cost?

What Mr. Lonergan has in "Margaret" is a diamond in the rough, gleaming with talkative brilliance and smeared with complexity and moral conundrums, as well as endlessly competing soundtracks.  Ambient noise is a resonant, effective part of "Margaret", which totally immerses itself in its surroundings, taking note of everything around it.  Even some of the mismatched shots are happy accidents; notably the idea that any potential building overlooking, or ship passing by on the Hudson River, is a figurative captive audience to Lisa's imbroglio.  The film and its director are keenly aware of its built-in grand audience of New York City.  They are not background noise, and in various overhead shots from skyscrapers a larger audience presides over Lisa, who is dwarfed by a world of vituperative adults. 

Feeling squeezed, Lisa seeks purity in an impure world, yet when things become too personal she behaves in an adult way.  Lisa is refreshingly honest, to a fault even, but all she wants is to make sense of the unease and emotional turmoil boiling within her.  Lisa's father, played by Mr. Lonergan, is, aside from one teacher, the only person who has a calming effect on her.  Joan however, upsets Lisa more with every word she speaks.  As an award-winning stage actress, Joan, who stars in a stage play appropriately titled "Controversy", has natural theatrics, bringing her real domestic dramas in her play's character on stage to the film's onscreen audience. 

As Lisa Ms. Paquin does the best work of her career -- and this, again, was filmed almost seven years ago.  She wields a certitude that's commanding, giving Lisa a fierce backbone and expressive power.  Ms. Smith-Cameron is excellent as Lisa's frustrated and anguished mother Joan, who has an amorous relationship that faces awkward situations.  Lisa and Joan are beings on a collision course.  They are mirror images and polar opposites, and "Margaret" chronicles their meeting in the middle, so exquisitely rendered late on.  Both are inner children in rapidly-changing bodies, varied by age and experimentation but are more alike and have more in common than they even admit.

At times surreal, spiritual and haunting, "Margaret" has an occasionally creepy atmosphere and Hitchcockian doubling.  At least two characters have the same first name, including a deceased daughter of one character who shares Lisa's name.  Lisa's classmate Monica shares her name with another key character, and there's an eerie likeness between them, just as the similarities in the stunning if not unsettling doppelgangers on the opera stage.

The film's editing process, which took almost six years, was tortured with lawsuits and various disagreements.  "Margaret" was supposed to be three hours long as per the director but after much dissatisfaction about various iterations of the finished product over the years Mr. Lonergan eventually agreed on a final cut after Martin Scorsese and his long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker edited a 150-minute version Mr. Lonergan approved of.

If one looks at the arrhythmic editing as a representation of the events and perceptions as seen from the view and in the mind of a confused, constantly-changing and ethical teen, then "Margaret" becomes even more masterful than Mr. Lonergan may have intended.  In this marvelous, flawed but remarkable adult "Pan's Labyrinth"-type fairy tale all the Big Apple's a stage, and like Mr. Hopkins says in his poem, we grieve and despair for Margaret.  She's still a Toys R Us kid in an FAO Schwartz and Apple world. 

With: Jeannie Berlin, Mark Ruffalo, Jean Reno, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Olivia Thirlby, Sarah Steele, John Gallagher Jr., Hina Abdullah, Kieran Culkin, Matt Damon, Allison Janney, Michael Ealy, Jake O'Connor, Jerry Matz, David Mazzucchi, Enid Graham, Renée Fleming, Susan Graham.

"Margaret" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for strong language, sexuality, some drug use and disturbing images.  The film's running time is two hours and 30 minutes. 

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