The Three-Hour-Long Second Coming of Kenneth Lonergan’s Magnificent “Margaret”

The Three-Hour-Long Second Coming of Kenneth Lonergan’s Magnificent “Margaret”
Girl, interrupted: Anna Paquin as Lisa Cohen in "Margaret"
(© 2011 - Fox Searchlight)

Team “Margaret” was out in force last night. Devotees of Kenneth Lonergan’s back-from-the-dead 2011 classic lined up around the block to get into the first public screening of his extended cut of the film at New York City's Sunshine Theater. The writer-director introduced the film and returned at the end for a Q&A with members of his cast, including Jeannie Berlin, Matthew Broderick, J. Smith Cameron, and Mark Ruffalo. Anna Paquin, its formidable star, is in Los Angeles and has told Lonergan she will attend the screening there.

Hosted by Indiewire and 20th Century-Fox to launch the DVD release of the movie today, the event felt like a triumph – a moment of redemption for Lonergan, who labored for seven years to bring the 188-minute cut to fruition. The 150-minute cut, released but not promoted by Fox Searchlight last September, is now available with the long version on BluRay.

What the extra 38 minutes does for “Margaret” is, primarily, turn the story of Lisa Cohen (Paquin), an aggressive, seductive 17-year-old schoolgirl whose sexual coming of age coincides with the aftermath of her unwitting involvement in a tragic bus accident, into an epic about the everyday lives of New Yorkers dwelling in the shadow of 9/11. Especially in its first half, the movie eavesdrops on the conversations of passers-by, cops, and women sitting in a coffee shop where the chatter initially drowns out a troubled conversation between Lisa and the hesitant schoolfriend (John Gallagher Jr.) who loves her unrequitedly.

Unlike the whispered internal monologues that bring spiritually inflected streams 0f consciousness to Terrence Malick’s films, the polyphony of voices in “Margaret” illustrates how people are preoccupied with their thoughts and feelings, underscoring Lisa’s melodramatic solipsism. As in the original cut, she is alerted to her tendency to relate everything to herself in the explosive scene in which Emily (Berlin), the friend of the woman (Allison Janney) struck by the bus, reads the crying teen the riot act. 

Lonergan and his editors have included many more punctuating shots of Manhattanites teeming on the sidewalks and traffic coursing along the sidewalks, mostly on the Upper West Side, where Lisa lives with her divorced actress mother (Cameron) and younger brother. There are numerous shots of the city’s buildings by day and by night, and occasionally the camera leans back to peer at the sky. Two shots show planes flying above the city, one of them unsettlingly low. Buses, cabs, planes – in Lisa’s new world, every one of them could be a killer.

“I hope I didn’t make it too heavy-handed,” Lonergan said of the plane shots when the interlocutor, the playwright Tony Kushner, asked him about the influence of 9/11 on the film. Reviewing Paquin’s performance in January, I mentioned that Lonergan had made a “virtual allegory” of 9/11 – the movie agonizingly probes the question of who should be held responsible for the Janney character’s death and how Lisa processes guilt and grief, particularly in the context of her relationship with her mother, who is equally self-absorbed, thinking about her career and tentative relationship with an altruistic Columbian (Jean Reno). How does Lisa go on? How did New York? At full length “Margaret” now seems like a full-blown allegory and the most resonant film made about the fallout of al-Qaeda’s attacks on America.

Lisa’s fury keeps “Margaret” grounded just about, but it has grown in opulence. As a spectacle, it is enhanced by the amping up of opera music on the soundtrack. Swathes of Strauss and Wagner have been added, echoing the operatic mise-en-scène of the cityscapes and the (soap) opera of Lisa’s mission to get the bus driver (Ruffalo) fired and her dalliances, for which, in a newly included sequence, she pays with a abortion. The climax, during Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffman” at the Metropolitan Opera, is as bathetic as it is powerful – and this time I noticed the ironic symmetry of Renee Fleming reclining on a couch in a blood-red gown as she sings the Barcarolle and Janney’s prostrated blood-drenched pedestrian dying in Lisa’s arms.

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