Anna Paquin stars as Lisa Cohen, a teenage girl going to a prep school
in Manhattan who is a witness to a horrible death and begins to feel
increasingly guilty about it until it consumes her, forcing her to lash
out and act out in various ways. Despite being structured and produced
in completely different forms, Margaret reminded me of Howl,
the 2010 film starring James Franco, that essentially was a cinematic
interpretation of Allen Ginsberg's poem of the same name. Instead of a
Beatnik, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan creates a cinematic
interpretation of 19th century poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins' work titled
"Sleep and Fall, To a Young Child."
I was really surprised at how filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman were able to visualize Ginsberg's words. It was beautiful and musical, and rhythmic in a way that really did the poem justice. Some biographical stuff about Ginsberg was provided but not much of a story was crafted. Lonergan doesn't have that problem. Lonergan creates a character and a narrative that is the perfect embodiment and expression of Hopkins' poem. It doesn't have the visual flair or boldness of Howl, but it is dramatically very powerful and provides a great platform for his actors, particularly his actresses.
Lonergan actually allows three actresses to shine. Paquin is center stage. Next to her is J. Smith-Cameron who plays Lisa's mother, Joan. On the other side is Jeannie Berlin who plays Emily, the best friend to the woman whom Lisa sees die. The three of them give amazing performances, which are built using a lot of tension and a lot of heartache, a lot of anger and frustration that for each of them simmers until it comes to a boil, or until it just out-and-out explodes. Those explosions are great punctuation marks. Recently, I criticized a movie that was made during the Bush administration that was shelved until this year. Margaret was conceived and produced prior to Obama's election, so while I might criticize the timeliness of certain topics, the punctuation marks are so strong that the actors all make it work.
Despite the fact that it was inspired by a poem, the movie isn't poetic, not like Howl. If anything, this movie could be described as operatic, not just in its use of music or even its sweeping and drawn-out nature. It's operatic mainly in its use of emotions, heightened emotions, which are highlighted and punctuated, as I said, but it's not soap operatic. I'm not sure I could make an argument that would convince anyone that Lisa's behavior and actions are ones that a real person would have. Yet, Lonergan and his cast make it work.
How he does so is through a consistent sense of awkwardness. This movie is essentially a series of scenes that have awkward situations or situations that become awkward or that are edited together awkwardly. The characters feel like they're stumbling their way through these scenes. Even though Paquin and Smith-Cameron have lines of dialogue that are clearly scripted, the awkwardness that Lonergan generates, the sense that the characters don't know what to do or that they're extremely uncomfortable or defensive, makes it so there's no way to predict what will happen.
For moments where you can predict what will happen, Lonergan uses editing to throw you off. Often, he'll use abrupt cuts and hard cuts in the middle of action. It could be criticized as choppy, and, even with its near three-hour run time, it still could seem incomplete, but that's Lonergan's main point is that his character Lisa is herself incomplete. She's still growing, still learning. She might think she knows it all, like Middle Eastern politics, but she doesn't. Throwing her into these awkward scenes is his way of showing us that.
Lonergan's awkward editing is his way of making us feel that and not just for Lisa but for his other characters, his male characters too. With his men, instead of abrupt cuts or hard cuts, what Lonergan does is linger. He'll hang on a shot, often a close-up, right in their faces, until it feels awkward or until we feel what the actor is feeling. Often, it's not an incredibly long amount of time, but it's enough that you do feel it. It's not that he doesn't hang on close-ups of his female actors, but he does so pointedly with his men at the end of scenes.
It's clearly the end of a scene but Lonergan doesn't cut away immediately. He stays on his actor's face. He does so with Matthew Broderick who plays Lisa's English teacher. He reads the Hopkins' poem to Lisa and his class, but later he gets into a debate about the meaning of Shakespeare and Broderick gives a performance as good as his teacher role in Election, even in this one scene and you feel it fully in the end, as Lonergan lingers on him.
Perhaps, it's Lonergan trying to reveal great performances with his lingering. He does it again with Matt Damon who plays Mr. Aaron, Lisa's math teacher who gets into an awkward sexual situation, Michael Ealy who plays Dave, a lawyer who gets into an awkward legal situation, and Jean Reno who plays Ramon, a businessman who gets into an awkward, romantic situation. How Lonergan lingers on these men at the end of scenes shows you so much about them in so simple a method.
Five Stars out of Five.
Rated R for language, sexuality, drug use and disturbing images.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 29 mins.