Judge Patrick Bromley actually wrote this review back in 2005.
Our review of Margaret: Extended Director's Edition, published November 14th, 2014, is also available.
"I feel so bad about what happened, and I'm trying so hard to do something about it."
In 2000, playwright-turned-filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan made a remarkable directing debut with You Can Count On Me, an intimate, honest, character-driven drama about the relationship between a brother and a sister. Then he was never heard from again.
Only, not really. See, he made a follow-up: Margaret, starring Anna Paquin as a young New Yorker who witnesses a bus accident. Shot in 2005 and scheduled for release in 2007, the movie became tied up with studio executives and legal battles, undergoing several different edits (including one supervised by Martin Scorsese) and languishing unseen for years. Slowly, a groundswell began to develop among critics who had seen it as they started a campaign to get the movie released. Fox finally relented in 2011, giving the movie a very limited release at the end of the year.
At last, everyone has a chance to see Margaret (in two versions, no less) courtesy of Fox's new Blu-ray.
Facts of the Case
Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin, She's All That) is a 17-year old private school student living in New York whose life is forever changed when she witnesses a tragic bus accident for which she may be partially to blame.
Margaret, are you grieving?
-- "Spring and Fall," Gerard Manley Hopkins
It is from this 1918 poem that writer/director Kenneth Lonergan derives the title of his 2005 film, Margaret, which underwent years of contentious legal battles and re-edits until it finally received a limited theatrical release in 2011. This is not the kind of movie that deserves to sit on the shelf for six years. This is a movie that needs to be seen. Like Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America, itself a movie that was nearly murdered by studio-mandated edits before being rescued and revealed to be a masterpiece, Margaret is a great movie that almost wasn't.
Of all the movies I've viewed during my time at DVD Verdict, few have been more difficult to write about than Margaret. It's been days since I saw it, and I already know I must see it again. I fear I've only scratched the surface of what the movie has to offer, and have had real difficult organizing my thoughts. I can say that I believe it's a masterpiece—a messy, ambitious epic not of scale but of emotion. It offers characters that are sharply drawn and brutal emotional honesty. It is a movie in which every scene is good and interesting. Movies like this are rare.
At the center of Margaret is Anna Paquin, who gives what would have been a career-defining performance as Lisa Cohen. Happy as I am to see her career take off, it's too bad that in the years that Margaret was languishing on the shelf, Paquin has gravitated towards the silly, campy trash of True Blood. Had audiences been allowed to see Margaret when they were supposed to back in 2007, her career might have taken a very different path. Though it's a cliche to describe a performance as "fearless," there's hardly a better word to categorize Paquin's work here. She is not afraid to be confused. To be unsympathetic. To be overly dramatic and scared and confused. To be awful. To lash out at those who don't deserve it. To be manipulative. But Lisa is not bad or evil—she is just young, cursed with intelligence and theatricality but unaware how those things effect her or how to focus them usefully. She is such a such a challenging, difficult, real character. She wants to do what she believes to be right, but confuses right with righteousness. As another critic put it, Lisa is so determined to do the right thing that she doesn't care who she hurts along the way.
Paquin is backed by an incredible cast, each of whom crush even the briefest of time on screen. J. Smith Cameron (of Man on a Ledge; also Lonergan's real-life wife), as Lisa's mom, is so subtle in what she does that it might not even seem like a performance upon first viewing—and, yet, so many of the choices she makes inform who Lisa is as a person. How often do you see a performance so strong and well-thought out that it actually makes the other performances feel deeper? Matthew Broderick, as one of Lisa's teachers, has a fantastic scene in which he debates King Lear with his class, and there is such truth and honesty to the conversation that it becomes almost funny. Yes, many young people believe they know everything. No, they are not willing to consider the possibility that they don't. Allison Janney is shattering in her one scene as the victim of the bus accident. Jeannie Berlin, as the older women with whom Lisa teams up in the lawsuit, creates a rich, complicated, frustrating human being, capable of warmth but also quick to fly off the handle and with an annoying tendency to interrupt. She is not a movie character. She is someone you know. Matt Damon, Mark Ruffalo, Kieran Culkin and John Gallagher Jr. (of HBO's The Newsroom) are all effective in smaller roles, making their characters feel lived-in and suggesting that their world's don't just stop when the camera isn't rolling.
The nature of the Lisa character and the messiness of the emotions on display in Margaret—not to mention the sheer length of the thing—will put many viewers off. This isn't a movie for everyone, but, then, the best movies so rarely are. Lonergan's reach exceeds his grasp at times, but the tension between the movie's ambition and its achievement is never less than fascinating.
The good news is that Margaret is available on Blu-ray at all; there was a time when its home video future remained uncertain. The movie gets a full 1080p HD, AVC-encoded transfer in its original 1.85:1 widescreen, and the results may not impress hardcore videophiles and HD snobs. Margaret is not a great-looking movie. It was made somewhat on the cheap. It is grainy. Its looks washed out. Fox's Blu-ray of the film recreates all of that, doing right by the source material without taking the liberties of digital enhancements or noise reduction. Though it hardly looks as slick or polished as the majority of contemporary HD releases, the movie looks as it should. The DTS-HD audio track does a capable job of presenting the dialogue in a clear, clean manner, but isn't called upon to do much else. It's a fine track—one that, again, suits the film's intentions—but isn't the type of offering that makes use of all the format's capabilities.
The only extra included is an additional standard definition DVD that's been included, containing Kenneth Lonergan's three-hour "extended cut." It is not described as a "director's cut," because Lonergan himself considers either version to be his cut. Those who feel that Margaret is already overlong, overly ambitious and messy will have no use for a version that's thirty minutes longer, but those who are drawn into the movie will be rewarded by watching the extended cut. Not only does it offer a chance to see some different choices from the filmmaker—including different takes of certain scenes and some Altman-esque experimentation with overlapping dialogue on the soundtrack (plus a slightly different score by composer Nico Muhly)—but also provides an interesting glimpse into the way movies are shaped in the editing room.
Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan no doubt went through hell trying to finally get Margaret to the screen, but the results are worth the trials. It's the kind of movie a filmmaker may only be able to make once, and Lonergan definitely lets it all out. It's a brilliant portrait of grief and confusion in the face of tragedy. It wants to understand the teenage girl at the center and not judge her as she missteps on the path to maturity. Yes, as Hopkins says, Lisa's heart grows older. She weeps, and by the end of the film, she finally knows why.
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