Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

"Divorced by many years from the context of its original conception, the film might easily be viewed as just another rites-of-passage indie – albeit an unusually multi-faceted one."

Sometimes accidents are just down to bad timing.

While out shopping on New York's Upper West Side, 17-year-old Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) spots a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) wearing the exact type of cowboy hat that she has been seeking for a trip with her estranged father, and as she distracts the driver's attention, his bus ploughs into pedestrian Monica Patterson (Allison Janney), who then dies, bloodily, in Lisa's arms.

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This complicated, traumatic and messy event triggers a similar mess (in a mostly good sense) of a film, as Lisa's naïveté, narcissism and adolescent intransigence on ethical questions all come crashing into an adult world of uneasy compromise. Quick to wash the blood from her own hands, Lisa sets out on a moral crusade to punish the driver for his part in the incident. From the wreckage there emerges an operatic coming-of-age drama in which Lisa's first experiences of sex and death, of the constabulary and the law, all prove equally unsatisfying, while viewers remain uncertain whether Lucy's crisis stems from teen growing pains, a genuine injustice, or a more pervasive angst in the zeitgeist.

Make no mistake: Margaret is - or at least might have been - very much a film of its time, and that time was the mid-Noughties, when New Yorkers were still reeling from the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers, and the Bush administration was ignoring the US's own activities and entanglements abroad while bringing punitive war against Iraq for non-existent weapons of mass destruction. Incurious, insular, vindictive, self-righteous and foolish, Lisa is a monster forged in the Bush mould – right down to the cowboy hat – with a notion of justice both misguidedly black-and-white and tragicomically blinkered.

Her views, stridently expressed in school discussions, are unquestioning neo-con nonsense. She might exploit her burgeoning physique, she might flippantly discard her virginity, she might fling herself headlong into very grown-up situations and concerns, but Lisa remains, in everything that she says and does, an egotistical, attention-seeking child. Similarly, Lisa's mother Joan (J Smith-Cameron) is a needy, approval-desperate actress whose own childishness is encapsulated by her uncanny impressions of both the young Shirley Temple and even a crying baby. Such infantilism is made to reflect the immature post-9/11 landscape of a nation that talks big - but behaves like a child - on the international stage.

Or at least that is how it should have been. Flush with success from his indie debut You Can Count On Me, writer/director Kenneth Lonnergan was granted a multi-million budget and director's cut for his next script Margaret, and completed shooting in late 2005 – but then things went terribly wrong, as Lonnergan became stuck, and his film became unstuck, in the editing suite. Time passed, executive producer Anthony Minghella died, producer Sidney Pollack died, there were lawsuits and countersuits, and still no cut materialised which Lonnergan would approve, until eventually, half a decade later, Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker were called in to re-edit the footage into a version that Lonnergan has now accepted, even though, at 150 minutes, it is a good half hour shorter than what the director had insistently envisaged in his original conception.

By the time it was completed, Margaret had effectively been abandoned by its own studio, with Fox Searchlight Pictures making no effort to promote or distribute a title that had caused so much grief. It was initially released on only two screens in the US and one screen in the UK – although there has subsequently been a groundswell of critical support for the film from print journalists and the twittersphere alike.

There have even been wishful clamours in some quarters for a full director's cut, as though the film's sprawling unevenness might somehow be cleared away with 30 minutes of additional scenes. Naturally, any flaws perceived in the released re-edit are conveniently imagined to have been wholly absent from the now idealised 'original' version – while Lonnergan is feted as a heroic filmmaking genius who both stuck it to his paymasters and restored to critics the power and discretion that they always like to believe is their proper due.

Forgotten in all this is Lonnergan's failure over many years to complete his edit. This is a film, remember, that needed rescuing long before critics stepped in to champion it against the indifference of the studios. Margaret is ultimately a product of compromise, and Lonnergan's original refusal to compromise brings him into uncomfortable proximity with his protagonist's worst quality.

That said, the Margaret that we now have is a very good film. The acting – especially that of Paquin, Smith-Cameron, and Jeannie Berlin as Monica's best friend Emily – is superb. Every character here – and they form a large ensemble – comes with the sort of developed nuance that could be accommodated by a dozen features. The story is a rich, complicated collection of unresolved melodramas and moral dilemmas whose very messiness makes them draw the eye and stick in the mind – like any accident.

But Margaret suffers most from its bad timing. Its stymied post-production and belated release ensure that much of its political allegory has become blunted, even irrelevant. Bush has come and gone, times have changed, and now, divorced by many years from the context of its original conception, the film might easily be viewed as just another rites-of-passage indie – albeit an unusually multi-faceted one.

It is all too appropriate, then, that Margaret should be named after the young addressee of Gerard Manley Hopkins' melancholic poem Spring and Fall (which features in the film) – appropriate because, like the future, adult Margaret envisaged in the poem, the film itself has lost its youthful identity to the inevitable ravages of time. To watch Margaret today is also inevitably to acknowledge the different film that it was – or at least might have been - years ago, and to see what has been lost in half a decade's passing.

Reviewed on: 10 Dec 2011
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A young woman find herself embroiled in the blame game after a bus accident.
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