“Now no matter, child, the name: Sorrow’s springs are the same.“..But then again maybe a name should be mattered, for what’s in one is actually quite a lot, semiotic ally speaking; this film’s name to it especially. You could understandably question why that would be if you simply looked at the poster and saw the picture’s single female protagonist under its proper noun title, but funnily enough Margaret is actually a film focused on a character called Lisa Cohen.
She doesn’t go by Margaret as a none-de-plume, no one mistakes her for a Margaret nor does the name mean much to most of the characters. There is one that goes by the name, but nothing is ever made of that fact; whereas Lisa Cohen is comparatively made into a catchphrase of sorts, so often does it get said out aloud. No Margaret is instead the protagonist of a poem taught during one of the films many student-in-class sequences, though not until a good two hours of film have passed. If the first part of that sentence didn’t frighten you off and the second doesn’t seem too scary then stick around, because Margaret is the kind of movie that may well have you pretentiously shouting ‘Bravi!’ despite the drain and dolor of its experience.
I mentioned there maybe being meaning in the name there certainly is here, though it takes some mattering to make sense of. My personal reading though is this: it is a sign of how Lisa lives to steal the focus, how she makes things that should ostensibly be about one person or another into dramas that instead orbit only her. She is the centre of the universe so why shouldn’t she also be the centre of this film? Screw whoever put their name down first. So when she witnesses a fatal bus accident in which an innocent man murders an innocent woman Lisa’s life is forever changed… well, kind of.
See that’s a very short synopsis of a very large and labored film; over the near three hours of its running time Margaret depicts a deep and full cross-section of Lisa’s everyday life and so for every scene in which we see the direct pain of her experience driving her there are two or three which would work without the crash ever having occurred. The film also apes real life in the way that it frequently tears itself away from it’s lead. Lisa, like all teenagers, lives her life like she is the star of a drama but here Lonergan stresses the importance of his supporting characters by giving each solo scenes, big name actors and compelling conflicts, distinguishing it from the usual protagonistic perspective taken in film.
Though of course, despite the real-life fame of the people playing them many of these characters only flash in and out of Lisa’s life in obtuse and adjunct chunks of un-narrative; their struggles important to them infinitely but to us only as long as they involve her. If all this sounds contradictory to you, know that it is; what Margaret does is not the same as what it says, it uses objectivism to speak about subjectivism and vice versa. Mostly though it blurs the difference between the two into nothing more than a shaping of scale; the objective to many of these people is the same conflict as before but between, say, races rather than individuals. Instead of stepping back they simply step up; thus their first world problems stay as peers to political conflicts in the middle east.
Similarly the cinematography stresses the size of Lisa Cohen in comparison to her surroundings. As the film is set specifically in New York City she shown to as simply a speck in the seething mass of crowds; people, prams and automobiles enter and exit the shots in layers, often obscuring the characters central to the scene, sometimes even getting between us and Lisa herself. There are scenes in which the camera lingers on her as she steps forward in slow motion, but there are also sequences of these in which strangers are put upon the screen. ‘She has a story, but so does everyone’ it seems to say. This isn’t what the film is trying to teach us, but what we learn when we grow up, or at least what we should.
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By & by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
Like many things this movie comes down to a coming of age, it is about the transition from Innocence towards experience. In the bus crash both parties are equally to blame but the adult driver is damned while child Lisa is seen as the innocent one, as the victim. A similar sort of exception is shown in Lisa’s other adult relationships, specifically those with her math teacher and mother alike; they should know better and so they are to blame. ‘Won’t someone think of the children?’ the mothers yell. Well, why should we? It’s not like the children ever think of the adults? Lonergan doesn’t exactly dismiss this social coddling, he simply questions it and seems to be saying here that adults as a whole are really no more mature than some kids and kids sometimes no more innocent. Nothing is ever that straight or that simple.
“And yet you wíll weep & know why.“
The third and most ambiguous of the films themes is sadness and more specifically, suffering. It’s as old as time, it’s what man is made for, it’s random, it’s required and it sucks. That seems to be the gist of his argument, and the film is an argument or statement of some sort, that much is clear. Within its script there are numerous scenes in which two characters try and fail to communicate to one another because they are both so concerned with properly crafting their own points that they fail to listen to those made by the other side, they’re talking to themselves. In comparison the crying at the opera scene suggests that it is only through art, through experiencing and analyzing it, that we can ever truly relate to another person, can put problems into their proper perspective.
This film then is Lonergan trying to talk to us, to everyone, about all of these big human issues, but the problem is that he rambles almost as much as I do during a review. So the very simple story of Lisa’s life becomes bigger than he can handle, too multi-faceted and complex to be perfectly captured in cinema form. Thus the years spent in the editing bay, thus the years spent in the can, thus the massive delay. This film about youth is so old that both Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella produced it ( presumably while alive); i almost wouldn’t have been so surprised to also see Sirk, Welles or Melies make an appearance in the credits list. I use those names for some reasons, both because they are obviously old and thus dead, but also because they were classy, memorable film-makers and Margaret, despite some subjective flaws, is a work deserving of those titles.