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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