What is perhaps most remarkable about Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret is the fact that it has made it to cinemas at all. Made six years ago, the film finally limped into a single British picture house last week.
Having tracked down one of Margaret‘s elusive cinema screenings, however, audiences may well be expecting to find something a little more extraordinary. Many of those who managed to catch early screenings of the film raved about the lead performance from Anna Paquin, and the complex story which unravels around her character, Lisa Cohen. The Guardian and Telegraph newspapers each handed out five-star reviews. However, it is impossible to ignore the fact that this is a film which has passed through so many hands, that it undoubtedly suffers.
Margaret is the second film to be directed by Lonergan, his first being the Oscar-nominated drama, You Can Count on Me. Sharing the same director, and a surprisingly similar cast, it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly where it all went wrong for Margaret. With lawsuits still pending, much of why the film has been so delayed in its release is being kept under wraps, although it’s no secret that Margaret was originally scheduled to hit cinemas way back in 2007.
However, it appears that there have been ongoing disputes been the studio and the director over the running time of the film. Sight and Sound, reported that although Lonergan committed to a two-hour film, he presented the actors with a 186 page script, which was rather naughty as one page of script usually equates to a minute of film. Having finally conceded to the 150minute cut, Lonergan is reportedly hopeful that Fox Searchlight will consider releasing an extended version at a later date.
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Margaret‘s main downfall is not in its length, but in its direction. The film gets off to a strong start: Lisa is an obnoxious teenager, cheating on tests, flirting with boys in whom she has no interest, worrying that she can’t find the perfect cowboy hat to wear. What could easily have coasted along as an angst-ridden teen drama takes a much darker turn when Lisa finds herself partially to blame in causing a fatal traffic accident.
What follows is a curious almost-coming-of-age tale, as Lisa struggles to achieve some sense of moral redemption, while simultaneously carrying out a number of morally dubious actions. It’s hard to say whether she’s growing up, or veering off the rails – which is precisely what makes her so interesting. That and Paquin’s scene-stealing performance, which critics seem to agree is far superior to the one she manages in her current role as True Blood‘s Sookie Stackhouse.
She is an intriguing character – one who audiences will want to watch, although not necessarily like – but there are so many strands to the story that it feels like many of them are left to evaporate like a cloud of New York City steam. Her subsequent encounter with the bus driver involved in the accident, played by Mark Ruffalo, never amounts to much, as is the case with a strange flirtation with seemingly-sensible geometry teacher, Matt Damon. While the film occasionally feels like it might be building to a reconciliation in the turbulent relationship between Lisa and her mother (played by Lonergan’s wife, J. Smith-Cameron), this idea just as quickly flops on its face after another raging argument between the pair. In the same way, Lisa’s brief encounter with fellow student Kieran Culkin, and her odd friendship with the best friend of the women killed in the bus accident, Jeannie Berlin, are relatively compelling to watch, yet they offer little more in terms of plot development.
As it stands, Margaret comes across as a film which is loaded with potential, but suffers from a clash in creative visions. Neither the single dream sequence, for example, nor a brief trip to the Opera are given the opportunity to be of any real significance. Several critics have noted that the film should be a contender at this year’s Oscars, but there’s every chance that it won’t be.
An extremely limited distribution means that many of those whose curiosity has been piqued won’t be able to see Margaret. However, this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it tactic by the studios may have backfired to some extent. The controversy surrounding its limited release has actually created interest and spawned a Twitter tag, #teammargaret. Could this all be some cutting-edge, hyper-perverse form of marketing? Everyone loves to back the underdog, especially in the UK, and now the film is being rolled out to a further nine cinemas across London today. Whether Margaret will be seen as a movie marvel by a more mainstream audience, as opposed to niche-seeking cinephiles, remains to be seen.
Margaret was (finally) released in UK cinemas on 2nd December 2011.