Maybe Fox Searchlight won after all: anyone who cares about Margaret will buy the recently released Blu Ray and watch the 180-minute cut. For the rest of us who haven’t seen it (yet), I’ll trust what Hans Morganstern wrote about its power. The extant version, sad to say, is a heap. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s depiction of teenaged Emily (Anna Paquin), who quietly loses her bearings after being indirectly involved in a bus collision that kills a pedestrian (Allison Janey), looks cobbled. Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing can’t fill the lacuna, or worse, make the lacuna signify on their own. Relationships aren’t unclear. Characters appear and vanish without reason. For example: the schoolteacher (Matthew Broderick) who reads the Hopkins poem from which Lonergan plucked the film’s title gets two scenes, one a pretty good freakout between him and an arrogant but correct student over interpreting a passage in King Lear. Pristine shots of Manhattan set to soaring music produce no correspondence between them and character mood. Anna Paquin, who based on the evidence devotes herself to Emily a hundred percent, isn’t modulated; her gulp of a voice doesn’t work when forced to shout (it’s excellent at being petulant though). Unexpected developments involving Emily’s math teacher (Matt Damon without wrinkles!) ask too much of our patience. Finally, the four-hour cut can’t be a masterpiece if it includes slow-motion scenes. Lonergan’s ear and eye for the casual revelation still shines in small moments like the one between Emily and the cop who has to patiently explain why the bus driver (a vacant Mark Ruffalo) will never be fired, much less charged with second degree murder.
Because critics have a penchant for sentimentalizing mutilation originating in corporate malfeasance, I understand the interest in promoting Margaret as a masterpiece, especially when Lonergan’s beloved first film You Can Count on Me eschewed this kind of grand canvas. Certainly he deserves a pat on the back for dusting off Jeannie Berlin (The Heartbreak Kid) and directing her to a sharp, caustic eighties-Woody-Allen-supporting-actress turn as Paquin’s companion, one of the beneficiarires of the suit she and Janney’s family file against the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Dismissive and curt, Berlin shows the damage wrought by living too long on revenge (“Don’t handle me!” she barks at Emily after she says the wrong thing at dinner). This restraint — conceptual and otherwise –shows up Paquin’s character, whose epiphany at the end of the movie is pure Act Three dramaturgy. If Lonergan thought like a filmmaker instead of a playwright he would have trusted us to make those connections. Maybe the scene is gone in the longer cut. While it sucks to review the movie before I’ve seen the whole thing, the raw material of Margaret is unpromising.