"Margaret" is, in many ways, an extraordinary film, but it won’t be for everyone. It maintains a stomach-churning intensity for most of its 2½ hours and words and emotions ricochet between characters carving out furrows of destruction. But what seems, at first, to be only about suffering and guilt ultimately encompasses much more. It is about accepting responsibility and about the strength of love that endures through rejection and is still there when finally recognised and needed.
Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) is an abrasive and opinionated teen who often seems to see herself as the star of her own opera. When she contributes to a horrific accident and arrives home, blood spattered and shocked, it’s understandable that she half feels this is all about her. She distracted a driver, she cradled a dying woman, she witnessed what no one else did and she lied to the police. As Lisa wrestles with her conscience, she dismisses her mother’s concern but it’s obvious she can’t move on. When she lashes out at home or explodes at school, her words are her referred pain. Pursuing the bus driver and the legal avenues to confront him with consequences isn’t enough. She has to face her own culpability, too.
Lisa is a fascinating character and Paquin gives a powerhouse performance. Whilst she is often unlikable and some of her choices are dangerously destructive, she is also explicable and ultimately sympathetic. At heart, she is trying to do what is right. Her relationship with her mother, Joan (J. Smith-Cameron) is agonisingly conveyed. Lisa’s tendency to contradict and undermine via throwaway lines can be instinctive but can be quite deliberate, too. Vulnerable Joan, a Broadway actress nervous about the opening of a new play and the risk of a new relationship, is denied access to her daughter’s needs and then castigated for failing to meet them. Her story may not be the film’s primary concern, but it’s clear that swivelling the camera to focus on her would reveal an equally compelling narrative.
That’s the strength here. It feels as though what is happening off stage is real and important, and even small moments are fraught with possibility. This film can’t be watched passively. Characters and situations demand passionate responses and just when you think you’ve pigeonholed someone, they do or say something to send you lurching off in another direction. The audience is constantly challenged, by ideas, opinions and emotions.
There is a sprawling quality to Margaret but it works. The raw and messy nature of the subject matter might have seemed incongruous in a tightly structured, neat sort of film. Here, we share the unsettling mental chaos of the protagonists and despair of resolution being a possibility. It is important that complete resolution is denied. Too tidy an ending would have seemed contrived and false. Instead, we are given a moment of quiet and, after all the sound and fury, it is tear-inducing and beautiful.
MA+ Strong language, sex scene, drug use