The seven year-old film Margaret, which has finally been released by Fox Searchlight, is very much of its time for a number of reasons.
Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret feels dated in several ways. It was shot in 2005, for starters. Its producers include Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella who have subsequently both passed away. Set in New York City, it is filled with debate about 9/11 and the position of the US in the world. And if it can be described as a “post 9/11” movie, it can also be described as a “pre-2008” movie in that its many concerns do not include the financial crisis that brought the western world to its knees long after the film was shot.
It’s one of those “troubled” movies that writer/director Lonergan couldn’t ever complete to the satisfaction of all parties involved. He finished a cut of the film with Martin Scorsese but it was still too long for the 150 minute maximum running time set by backer/distributor Fox Searchlight. Lonergan says that he supports the release cut “wholeheartedly”. He does add, however: “It’s no secret that I tried to get a subsequent version released, which Marty Scorsese very graciously helped with, which even more fully executes my complete intentions – a cut that I still hope will someday, somehow see the light of day.”
We can only hope that Fox will one day release this director’s cut because Margaret, even as it is now, is an extraordinary work, delivering on the considerable promise of Lonergan’s debut feature You Can Count On Me. It’s emotional, witty, acerbic, provocative and so well-observed that you feel the characters are real and in real pain. It’s also the best portrait of the confusion of youth I have probably ever seen, and Anna Paquin captures all the bristing anxiety, sexual awakening and naivete of teenagedom in the character of Lisa Cohen with fantastic veracity. It’s so utterly absorbing, in fact, that I wanted another 150 minutes with the characters when the film came to an end.
And that’s where it perhaps shows its age as well. If Lonergan were setting out on Margaret today, he might have opted for television as the best medium for a project as ambitious and multi-layered as Margaret.
It’s such a pleasure to live with these characters for two and a half hours that you realize how few feature films these days allow us the luxury of full immersion in the story. A long running time is seen as an indulgence and a big audience turn-off. Indeed, watching Margaret, you realise that there are scenes that don’t need to be in there to further the story. They enrich the characterizations and give us insight into the characters’ lives but aren’t strictly necessary to the momentum of the plot.
TV, however, still allows such fripperies and in just the six years since Lonergan shot Margaret, TV has become the home for the best and richest storytelling in the world. One of the Margaret producers Scott Rudin is working increasingly aggressively in TV these days and Lonergan’s star Anna Paquin is the lead actor in HBO’s hit series True Blood. No self-respecting film-maker does not want to experiment in the narrative and structural freedoms offered by the medium of television.
In the meantime, in the hope that Lonergan’s brilliance finds a new vehicle in film or TV, I urge anyone to watch Margaret in all its big shapeless wonderfulness. The theatrical release is half-hearted to say the least, so you will probably end up watching it on the small screen - and wishing for another season when it ends.