Kenneth Lonergan’s new film “Margaret” a rare gem.

Kenneth Lonergan moved from the theatre into the cinema in 2000 with You Can Count On Me. One of the memorable films of the decade, it seemed to hark back to a bygone era when some of the most thought-provoking and challenging drama came from independent films produced in the U.S.

But by then, all the interesting people working in cinema had begun moving into television. Everyone it seems except Lonergan. But as brilliant a drama as You Can Count On Me is – and it really is – it isn’t actually cinema. It’s essentially filmed drama.

The good news is that Lonergan has learnt, and learnt substantially from that first effort. What we have in Margaret (see the trailer here) is a big bold and glorious piece designed for the silver screen. The bad news is that it was shot it in 2005 and it’s only now that it’s finally seeing the light.

You Can Count On Me.

You Can Count On Me.

Nine times out of ten, when a film is held up like that in post it’s almost always because it reeks to high heaven. This happily is one of those rare exceptions. You can read all about what happened here in Joel Lovell’s excellent piece in the NY Times. But what it seems to boil down to is, Lonergan couldn’t bring himself to edit it down to a conventional length, and the whole thing ended up in court.

Which is hugely disappointing, because for its first two hours Margaret is flawless. And though it does begin to sag somewhat in its third and final hour, it’s still one of the best and most memorable films for many a moon.

Lisa is the precocious, pretty Jewish 17 year old ensconced in her privileged enclave in New York, convinced that the world revolves around her – which, of course, in real life it would. Anna Paquin is brilliant as the intellectually vibrant but confused and inchoate lead in a world we’re all familiar with from Woody Allen at his prime.

A Separation.

A Separation.

Very few of the story’s ironies though are played for laughs here. There’s even a scene in which a theatre actress complains about how pretentious people who go to the opera are, which isn’t meant to be funny. So we find ourselves peering into the lives of legitimately articulate, introspective people prone to existential angst, trying to come to terms with the world they live in against the backdrop of a skyline devastated by events beyond their control.

The film only loses it way ever so slightly when we leave her classmates in the final hour to focus on the legal battle that she becomes embroiled in. It’s reasonably obvious where that was all going to end up, and some of those later scenes could comfortably have been pruned. If you want to see how that much story is handled much more frugally, you only have to have a look at the wonderful A Separation (reviewed earlier here)

Anna Paquin and Bennn

Anna Paquin and Matt Damon in Margaret.

But this is but a minor quibble. This is a serious film and major work from one of the most exciting individuals working in the medium. If he can marry the discipline of his writing from You Can Count On Me (see the trailer here), which he can and does for most of Margaret, with the visual panache and sonic invention of the latter, that will be a sight to behold.

Have a look at the interview he gave with Richard Brody in the New Yorker here.

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