If you enjoyed Manchester by the Sea, it’s definitely well worth seeking out this, Lonergan’s superb previous film, which had brief and limited general release late in 2011.
It’s a minor miracle that this film ever saw the light of day anywhere, after a chequered 5-year history of fallings out, changing personnel, costs, and a huge wrangle over its final length. It took a last-ditch move from Scorsese, getting his editor involved, to get the thing down to a length acceptable to the distributors Fox, and even then a swift week in London just before Christmas looked like all it was going to get, until a limited distribution to art house cinemas brought it, thankfully, to the Tyneside. Though with a flavour of vintage Woody Allen, Altman, and Cassavetes, Margaret has a feel all its own that grabs you with its spiky, comic and tragic intensity, and what’s more, New York has rarely looked so beautiful.
Lisa (Anna Paquin) a well-heeled, bright, cocky teenager, finds herself, quite inadvertently, partly responsible for a fatal road accident. That it’s through her own self-centred joie de vivre is part of the tragedy. Just plain nasty to her lacking-in-confidence mother, a bullying motormouth at school, she’s at once unlikeable and sympathetic, tedious and fascinating, as she takes up with relish the cause of finding someone responsible for the death. Is she really penitent for whatever part she might have played, or is it another instance of her putting herself at the centre of things yet again? And yet her moral intensity shines through, in the end, the pragmatic, accommodating adult world. It’s this ambiguity both in Lisa’s character and the intentions of everyone else that’s the delight of the film, as it roams through themes of guilt, sadness, responsibility , and the ownership of grief, with some of the most terrific arguments you’re likely to see on screen. A grieving friend becomes a shrieking harridan (‘Strident? Did you call me strident??’), people talk over each other, fail to listen, eagerly seize wrong ends of sticks and make foolish decisions until you want to leap into the screen and join in yourself to sort them out. It’s bad for the blood pressure. But between the fury comes the quiet. Sometimes the camera soars up above it all to gently track the New York skyline, not that of the tourist or even Woody Allen’s iconic streets, but the real New York that is just a city where people live. Sometimes it goes back to street level to wander among the crowds about their business, reminding us this is just one story among so many unknown ones.
There are moments of quiet and kindness, like the oasis of calm that is Jean Reno’s suitor (or is he just a stage door johnny, we wonder) to Lisa’s diffident mother, and most of all the central scene where Matthew Broderick’s teacher reads out to his class the Victorian poem Spring and Falladdressed to ‘Margaret’ (just at a time when you’ve forgotten to wonder what the title referred to). It speaks of the innocent tears of a young girl who allows herself to be upset about sadness in nature, when as she grows older and wiser she will become inured to such things. And that weeping is always at root a mourning for oneself and the human condition. For perhaps the first time we see Lisa as a young innocent girl.
Anna Paquin’s Lisa is stunningly good, and must rate as one of the best ever portraits on screen of a teenager. She’s supported by a positive galaxy of acting talent, including Matthew Broderick and Matt Damon as teachers, Jean Reno, Mark Ruffalo doing cocky unsympathetic as only he does, and the lesser known J Smith Cameron as her mother and the wonderful Jeannie Berlin as Emily the ‘strident’ bereaved friend, a multi-layered, abrasive and exasperatingly funny portrait of a woman you really feel you know. Her paraphrasing of the ‘Margaret’ sentiments is like a harsh patriarchal god’s version of Hopkins’ gentle and understanding poem.
The real surprise comes at the end in an epiphanic scene that shows the heart of the film is on Hopkins’ side rather than Jehovah’s, as, unexpectedly as ever, sheer beauty brings a kind of healing resolution.
Seen at Tyneside Cinema, 20 December 2011
Spring and Fall
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
Gerard Manley Hopkins