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Margaret (2011)

Simon Boccanegra
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I had never actually seen the theatrical cut of Margaret, which is bundled in the Blu-ray/DVD combo with the extended version its director prefers. I had only read about what Kenneth Lonergan had had to lose to get a 186-minute film down to 150 minutes. The playwright Tony Kushner described the uncut version as perhaps the greatest film he had ever seen about life in New York City.  

A brief, safe plot outline: Manhattan, perhaps two autumns following the 9/11 attacks. A 17-year-old student named Lisa (Anna Paquin) distracts a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo), who runs over a pedestrian (Allison Janney, in an excruciating death scene). Lisa initially lies to support the driver's story that the traffic light was green, but a combination of guilt, trauma, and teenage self-importance make her change her statement and seek justice via the police and the courts. This crusade brings her into contact with the dead woman's best friend (Jeannie Berlin) and a surviving family member in another state. Parallel stories concern Lisa's rocky relationship with her actress mother (J. Cameron-Smith, the director's wife), her long-distance relationship with her father (Lonergan himself), two potential boyfriends (John Gallagher Jr. and Kieran Culkin), and Matthew Broderick, Matt Damon, and Josh Hamilton as teachers. The mother is in a new relationship of her own with a genial foreign-born opera buff (Jean Reno). There is a lot of emotional classroom debating about terrorism and war, and when two adults come into conflict over the same issues, the scene turns just as nasty.  

I wonder how I would have reacted with only the theatrical cut to go on. Coming at it from the other end, having seen the extended cut first, made a frustrating experience for me. At the director's preferred length, Margaret is a difficult masterpiece. At the studio-mandated 150 minutes, it is a terribly wounded one.

Only a few full scenes are missing, although one omission, amazingly, leaves us unsure whether the heroine is telling the truth in a pivotal confrontation near the end (she is). This is not the good kind of ambiguity. If she is lying, a possibility the missing scenes allowed many viewers to conclude, she looks downright spiteful. 

Most of the cutting is of the internal type, though…and it is just as awful. At full length, Margaret has a leisurely, meandering, but hypnotic rhythm. Shortened, it has no rhythm. Lonergan obviously had difficulty parting with entire scenes, so to lose more than a half hour of what he had shot, he kept most scenes in and rushed them. Scenes either begin in progress or end too abruptly, brutally throwing us into the next thing. It is hard to tell if something is happening later the same day as what came just before or on another day. It is also hard to tell how much the relationships have progressed. I would even be flummoxed to say how much of a general time span the movie covers. Weeks? Months? Characters lose fullness. The grieving friend played so well by Ms. Berlin, in particular, looks much harsher and less sympathetic in the shorter version. All of the character's bluntness is preserved, but the traces of warmth are lost.  

The mournful, Latin-tinged original score is by Nico Muhly, and we hear more of it in the theatrical cut. When Lonergan prepared the extended edition for the DVD, he replaced a number of Muhly's cues with music from operas such as Don Giovanni, LohengrinLa traviata, and Tristan und Isolde, as well as one of Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs, As much as I like Muhly's score, I prefer the soundtrack of the extended edition, which not only gives the movie more variety of sound but underlines the connection between Lisa's outsized young-person emotions and the heightened passions of opera. 

Vocal excerpts by Christine Goerke (Norma) and Renée Fleming/Susan Graham (Les contes d"Hoffmann), filmed on location at the Metropolitan Opera, make both cuts. 

It is a testament to the work of the ensemble cast and to Lonergan's writing and overall ambition that even the released Margaret was on many critics' lists of the best films of 2011, and enough of a clamor was created by its cult to get the extended version released. Again, had I seen the released Margaret in 2011 with no idea that there was anything more to see, maybe I would look more kindly on it. But even then, I would be able to see it had been choppily edited. I would then assume that a director of only one prior film (the 2000 chamber drama You Can Count on Me), this time working with a larger cast and bigger themes, had let his material grow beyond his means to shape and manage it. Maybe that is an argument that could be made of either version of Margaret, but I hope in time the long version supersedes this one into curiosity status. certainly only watched it because I was curious, and it will not be my choice in the future.

There is something poetic (and unintentionally ironic) about Lonergan ending his troubled interpersonal epic with music from Les contes d'Hoffmann, a sprawling opera that exists in many versions of different lengths. The choice surely was made when the film's postproduction agonies lay ahead, but it is quite fitting.   

All three Kenneth Lonergan-directed films (the other being 2016's acclaimed Manchester by the Sea) have characters in tears near the end. In all three cases, it is both the bad kind of cry (sadness, loss) and the good kind (catharsis, acceptance).  

Future stars: Breaking Bad's Krysten Ritter, wordless, as a salesgirl when Paquin's character is trying to buy a cowboy hat.

Edited by Simon Boccanegra
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