After originally being scheduled for a 2007 release, Kenneth Lonergan’s follow-up to You Can Count on Me has at long last made it into our cinemas, with Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker overseeing the final edit.
The film follows Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin), a disgruntled and troubled adolescent who projects her personal problems onto everything around her, creating a mesh of intertwined issues. One day she is being her usual quirky self, walking around New York looking to buy a cowboy hat. She spots a bus driver sporting a Stetson and in a bid to get his attention jogs alongside the vehicle waving at him. He, distracted by her efforts, runs a red light and brutally kills an unsuspecting pedestrian. When questioned by the police, Lisa lies, telling them that she believes the light was green.
It’s a tale of accountability, responsibility and morality. The nature of the accident is just one of the multiple case studies raised throughout – it was accidental, but should someone pay penance? Who’s responsible for the death? Lisa? The bus driver? The bus company who hired the guy? Or is it simply pure chance, or fate?
The multitude of questions above exemplifies the film’s conflicted nature. Far from a criticism, it is this nature that makes it so fascinating. Few characters ever find common ground to agree upon throughout the narrative, and Lisa herself seems to always take offence whenever somebody raises a salient point that contradicts her own philosophy.
The best scenes are those that encourage the debate. There are numerous set in high school classrooms in which people from a variety of ethnicities furiously discuss some of the more pertinent issues of the day. Lisa joins in with these, often playing devil’s advocate, and usually finds herself ending up in a fit of rage and tears.
Her emotions represent a key theme here – post 9/11 America. Undoubtedly, much will be lost on an English audience in comparison to an American audience, but it is a mood that is apparent regardless. Ultimately, it’s tricky to gauge exactly what is being said. I will surmise that, in the face of tragedy, rationality becomes obsolete and doing the ‘right thing’ becomes an ideal rather than an action. An important point is the confusion itself – you may believe that the actions you take and the feelings you feel are entirely moral, but could the events you go through be turned on their head to make another seem like the guilty party? The answer is often yes, as is displayed throughout Margaret.
At the heart of it, Anna Paquin is outstanding in the lead role. Lisa is a particularly difficult character to portray – she’s frustrating, naive and has an explosive, teenage-angst fuelled temper. It would have been easy for her to become unbearable, but Paquin measures it just right, introducing enough empathy to make her bearable and eventually highly sympathisable. She acts like she can carry the world on her shoulders, but it becomes apparent that she is as lost in life as anyone else. In fact, every one of the characters is revealed to be tragically lost in some way or other, it’s a concurrent theme that plays throughout.
Margaret is a film that could be talked about for pages upon pages, and that’s a huge compliment, so before this review spirals out of control I’ll get down to the real problem – the production itself. Despite it taking numerous edits for it to even appear on our screens, the picture still feels largely unfinished. There are a couple of dialogue scenes that are out of focus, some very inconsistent lighting, and some plot-threads and characters that feel completely throwaway until they have their brief moment in the sun.
Margaret is a cavalcade of emotion and ideals told through raw and untempered film. This is thoughtful, thoroughly intelligent filmmaking, but it is not quality filmmaking. Less is often more in cinema, and while it may have felt like a shameful compromise to remove some of the plot threads, which are all individually fascinating, it would undoubtedly have improved the overall piece. If you like cinema that makes you think, Margaret may be right on the money. However, at two and a half hours long, some may struggle with its lack of cohesion.