Once more unto the breach gentle reader, let’s get the year kicked off with a few reviews as the sleepy, pensive, hibernation period of January witnesses the release of some unusual material that precedes the final stretch of awards season. First up is Margaret, a movie I mentioned on here some time back when it was only showing at the miniscule Odeon Panton Street, however when scouring the listings for something to do after I returned from foreign climes I saw this was playing at the Genesis Cinema in Whitechapel, a short 30 minute stroll from my humble abode, thus I knew I’d alighted on the first cinema yomp of the year. First up I haven’t seen director Kenneth Lonergan’s debut film, the acclaimed Mark Ruffalo star-making You Can Count On Me – in fact in a rare moment of cinematic piety I must confess that I’ve never even heard of it nor its director before – but the presence of Margaret on many critics best of the year list made this something of a must see before tracking down The Artist over the coming weekend, another film that opened on just one screen in the West End before cascading wider over the subsequent weeks – don’t ask me why, I’m not a distribution expert but it has been a major success on that one screen which presumably has built that all elusive ‘buzz’, just like they use to strategize in the olden days – the 1970’s. I seem to have something of a talent for picking solid, interesting initial films to blood a new year, I’m pleased to say that this winning streak continues out to 2012 as Margaret is a superbly acted, gripping moral drama that is brimming with discernible talents, which might just provide some intellectual exercise to accompany any physical New Year resolutions.
Completed in 2006 and embroiled in a series of protracted legal wrangles over final cut and runtime between Lonergan and producer Scott Rudin this initially slight tale expands out over a slumberous two and a half hours to more estranged proportions, Margaret (Anna Paquin in award seizing mode) is a self-centred, snooty, argumentative middle class 17-year-old New York City high-school student who may or may have not been partially responsible in distracting a bus driver (Ruffalo) into a fatal hit and run striking of a pedestrian. Cradling the dying woman in her arms the experience subconsciously traumatizes Margaret who seems already anxious and confused, and her moral code, already not fully developed is further compromised when her statement to the police asserts that the light was green when the woman was hit. The scene is set for her idealistic naivety to be shredded as she seeks advice and support on whether she should do the ‘right’ thing from her peers and elders, ingratiating herself with the victims distant family her frustration kindles an emotional rift with her family (her mother and stage actress Joan played by J. Smith Cameron), her friends (Ellen Page’s best mate from Juno), her teachers (two small roles for Matthew Broderick and good ole Matt Damon) and most of all inflicting a poisonous wound within herself.
Margaret is thoughtful, adult, contemporary drama that turns a mirror to the audience and asks some difficult questions – what would you do in her place? Potentially incriminate yourself by doing the right thing, for a person already passed with little in the way of close family? The film has been mooted as an archetype of the post 9/11 cinematic canon, presumably due to its complex ethical labyrinth rather than its obvious New York setting, where tragedies beget moral or spiritual decline and the potential worsening of situations and relations, through unforseen implications of what on he surface seem like the right thing to do. Paquin in a pre True Blood role is simply sensational, her character at heart is self-absorbed, illogical, anxious and infuriating – in other words a teenager – but there is an embryonic moral core beneath those contradictions that she wrestles with throughout the film, I hope she gets an Oscar nomination as although Streep as Thatcher and Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe seem to be a shoo-in these roles strike me as much more difficult to convincingly pull-off, you can’t revert to mere impersonation and the way that her performance deepens and evolves throughout the lengthy run-time is quite the endurance test. The adults aren’t much better in their conduct and bourgeois isolation, but they have the benefit of a lengthier life experience to resign themselves to a world where precepts and principles are known to be more complex and opaque than they first appear, and the time spent on Margaret’s mother being wrapped up in her career and fledgling romance with a new suitor (Jean Reno) seems peripheral to the central story, until it clicks that the film is signalling that we all adrift and we’re all flawed, as Margaret seeks guidance and resolutions to her increasingly complicated cerebral isolation.
Some of the scenes are just a little too on the nose if you ask me – I don’t think we needed two heated scenes were Margaret verbally battles with her fellow students over the political post 9/11 landscape during a philosophy or debate class but three or four individual sequences are flawlessly played, where you really appreciate the power of the performances, with dialogue, (presumably some of which was improvised) that has a genuine cadence and rhythm that feels true to life and not manufactured from a screenwriters quill. Lonergan uses some unusual blocking to frame developments rather than the standard issue shot reverse shot routine, these techniques enhance the performances in moments reminiscent of that celebrated central concatenation of Hunger, it might be a little more theatrical but the film is all about the characters, with only a few drifting inserts of the New York skyline to break the repetition of restaurants and bedrooms, apartments and classrooms in which the lengthy drama plays itself out. It’s always a pleasure to unearth an obscured talent and if Lonergan can clamber from the wreckage of the films studio interference then I look forward to his next project, this reminded me of the middle class moral quagmires that the French seem to excel at – and I do mean this as a complement – where the plot driver (if you’ll forgive the pun) becomes a hook to expose wider societal mores and ethnological etiquettes which are then excavated for further forensic analysis. A quick word of caution, the accident scene is one of the more realistically horrific things I’ve seen recently but given the spectre that it casts over the rest of the film this excruciatingly staged collusion and its immediate aftermath are fully earned, even worse is a far more difficult to watch fumbling, inexperienced sex scene which is the very dictionary definition of intended embarrassment. If you have an appetite for more rewarding fare after the season of tinsel and festive distractions, then Margaret comes recommended.