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As the door closes on phase one of the Oscar season and nomination ballots are finalized, Kenneth Lonergan’s “Margaret” takes the stage in the final moments. Screeners of the film were finally sent out to all voting members of the Academy recently, and now, supporters of the film wait to see if said members may have responded to the material.
The actress at the center of the story, Anna Paquin, delivered her performance six years ago, when she was 23. And yet the experience still seems fresh and vivid in her mind, as if she were leaving the set after a day of emotional Olympics on “Margaret” rather than an evening of stunt-heavy work on Alan Ball’s southern-fried vamp camp phenomenon “True Blood.”
What the intermittent years have done is give her a sense of perspective akin to the kind of enriched self-understanding only attained with the passage of time. But then the actress already had the benefit of chronological distance from her character, Lisa Cohen, when production began, providing the space necessary for her to find what was lovable in a girl who she concedes is so often eristic in the film.
“When you’re a little bit older than the character that you’re playing, it’s easier to be compassionate towards their less likable qualities,” she says. “She’s gone through this horrible trauma and she takes it out on everyone around her in that way that people do. And she’s trying to make sense of what’s happened to her. And, of course, she’s only 17.”
In her innocent, yet rigidly determined quest to find a cowboy hat for a trip to New Mexico that will take her outside of her isolated Upper West Side of Manhattan life, Lisa distracts a bus driver long enough for him to hit and kill a woman. The scene, so beautifully, wrenchingly realized, shocks the audience within the first 10 minutes of the film. The remaining 140 minutes depicts Lisa’s reconciliation with the girl she was before she felt the life leave a woman she helped to kill and her journey toward accepting a world filled with senseless atrocity.
“It’s about the pain of having to realize that the world around her is not perfect, and that’s kind of okay," Paquin says. "She’s trying to do the right thing, and do the right thing, and do the right thing and it doesn’t get her anywhere. Eventually she has to, not give up, but let go of the idea that there’s a good outcome if everyone just sort of behaves by a predetermined moral code. Because that is ultimately a very naïve, young point of view. It’s the passage of childhood into adulthood.”
Lisa spends the large bulk of the story in an enraged, mercurial, confused state looking for some way to restructure the moral disorder the fates have crafted for her. She, in fits and starts, looks for an outlet upon which to vent her sense of dissatisfaction and (genuinely felt) angst: a simple solution to a complex equation. She eventually, almost gleefully, lands on the bus driver as the valve for her poison.
“I find that to be a very realistic depiction of that age,” Paquin says. “You’re frantically looking for something to hang onto that makes sense and then you find the thing that seems to make the most sense and that’s it. She’s kind of projecting all of that guilt and that need for someone to be punished onto the one person she can hang it on, because he was physically driving the bus.”
It's oddly fitting that the space between the production and release of the film (held up due to a web of legal entanglement between the film's director, financier and distributor) exists because the essence of “Margaret” is the unfolding of a universally relatable reckoning and maturation process. Lisa follows a uniquely condensed trajectory of that process because the extreme nature of the accident forces her to confront aspects of her life and relationship to the world in one sweeping movement.
The Gerard Manley Hopkins poem that lends the film its namesake, “Spring and Fall," speaks to the idea that age -- in the sense of wisdom earned and gained -- comes with a requisite fading of the stark clarity and sense of abject rejection with which the young experience perceived injustice. It's about a girl named Margaret crying over leaves falling from the trees, but Manley depicts this as a hardening. “As the heart grows older, it will come to such sights colder,” Hopkins cautions in his verse, concluding with verbiage reflective of that most timeless of themes, innocence lost: “It is the blight man was born for, it is Margaret you mourn for."
The likening to the poem seems to indicate that flawed and chaotic as Lisa’s “moral gymnasium” is, perhaps there is some heartbreak in the loss of it, in both the surrender to and the embrace of the horror that is so inevitably part of life. Yet Lonergan paints a more nuanced portrait. There is a beauty in the acquiescence and a liberty born of Lisa’s final admission of her own culpability (intentional or not) in the tragedy.
“She’s running around trying to accept responsibility, but she’s never actually able to say it until the final moment when nothing else she’s tried is working,” Paquin says of Lisa’s ultimate gateway to adulthood. “‘It’s my fault, I did something stupid and somebody died.’ That’s a huge part of who she is. Even though she’s wildly disillusioned by everyone around her, she finally accepts her part of it and she is somehow freed by the admission.”
A large portion of the film's power comes from its strength as a very subtle, but alarmingly accurate, metaphor for the inner workings of a nation following the events of 9/11. “It was much more timely and relevant when we shot it six years ago, because it had only been a couple of years,” Paquin muses. “That was a big part of what it meant to live in New York at that time.”
Interestingly enough, the divide between the time the film takes place and the present serves to illustrate how precise a reflection it is of the struggle the people of New York and the United States were in with themselves to comprehend and contextualize the meaning of those attacks. We now have (some of) the clarity that detachment provides.
In addition to the scope of the thematic core, the film presents a gorgeously rendered and grounded vision of life in New York. Paquin occasionally slips into Lisa’s cadence, “per se” and “necessarily” and “particularly” flavoring and characterizing her speech. In an experience she refers to as "a great love affair," the actress spent her late teen years in New York interacting with the members of the community that “Margaret” so vibrantly brings to life on screen. "Learning the rhythms of the voices is easier if it’s something that you were really infatuated with anyway,” she says of the film’s spot-on rendering of the intonations of real New Yorkers.
Lonergan is precise in his use of language and yet it does not tread into realm of the distinctive patterning that elicits an "otherworldly" sense that some playwrights enforce (David Mamet, for example). The performances in “Margaret” feel as spontaneous, fresh and truthful as any on screen this year. Lisa reads like an exposed nerve. The relationships are layered and rich, whether they are brief, elliptical or established over time. Indeed, it is the performances that many hope will receive some last-minute Oscar attention.
“I think that if that sort of thing is a goal then you’re in it for the wrong reasons,” Paquin says of the awards game. “I go to work to do good work, to make me feel good for reasons that have nothing to do with the end result. Maybe that’s from the luxury of having hit some so-called 'high points' in my career very young that I don’t think about it like that. But I don’t. There’s nothing better than coming home from work and feeling absolutely exhausted because you gave it everything that you had, that feeling of calmness, of having done great and exhausting work. Which 'Margaret' was every day.
“Of course, ultimately you make movies for audiences, and especially with a movie like this one, that your incredibly passionate about (and everyone who was involved in this film was passionate about it), you just want people to see it and, even if they don’t like it, to understand what you were doing. The amazing thing about this era of entertainment, though, is that between the online media and the Netflix and the iTunes people end up seeing more things than they may have otherwise.”
Yet one thing Oscar nominations and buzz can do is shine a light on which films are deserving of attention. “Margaret” has yielded one of the finest performances of Paquin’s career. But it also represents an ensemble piece that is as fascinating and finely tuned as it is raw. There is also a quality to Paquin's portrayal that is strangely reminiscent of her screen debut in Jane Campion's "The Piano." She became the second-youngest Oscar winner ever, taking home the Best Supporting Actress award for the film.
“The work that I was able to do with Kenny was possibly the most uninhibited work that I think I’ve done since I was really little and didn’t know you were supposed to be inhibited,” Paquin says of the two depictions. “And there’s a sort of confidence and individuality and lack of giving a shit about other people’s opinions of you that I think both of those characters share. That’s from having watched the film over time, because as a 9-year-old, I had no understanding of the concept of a character. I didn’t really know what I was doing. There’s a sort of reacting to things on a purely visceral emotional level, which I think they do share.”
And yet that very intuitive, primal quality emerges as a result of the disciplined work ethic that playwright and theatre director Lonergan employs. “That’s his background and those are the kind of actors that he hires,” Paquin says. “We spent two or three weeks sitting around a table and rehearsing and really just dissecting every single last piece of punctuation and utterance that comes out of all these people’s mouths. Because one of the things about working with a writer that’s as gifted as Kenny is that every single word is there for a reason. He has thought about it all. There’s no accidents on the page and when you get it and you get the rhythm of it and it’s working, it’s incredibly gratifying. He’s the kind of writer that makes an actor sound really good.”
The actress had worked with the director on a play when she was 19 and had a respect and understanding for his approach. Indeed, Lonergan had Paquin specifically in mind when he was writing the role of Lisa Cohen as a result of that collaboration.
“I know a lot of actors that are not particularly into the rehearsal process because they feel that it stifles the spontaneity,” Paquin says. “I couldn’t possibly be more in the other camp. I think that if you work out every single technical detail and beat and moments that you want to achieve, then you then have freedom once you walk on set to do your job without having to think about anything nuts-and-bolts-wise.”
She uses the film’s crucial and painfully intimate moment between her character and the woman she (in her blithely unaware state) helped kill (Allison Janney, in a stunning if brief performance) as an example of the fruit of Lonergan’s co-creation with his cast.
“There was something kind of incredibly intense about actually shooting that in the middle of oncoming traffic in the middle of 34th and Broadway for four days straight," she says. "We were all covered in blood. It was gruesome and it was one of those moments it felt horrible. It felt really upsetting, and that can help. But we had rehearsed and rehearsed and for me, I can go to those places when I’ve thought about all the details first.
"I also think I was just so absorbed in who she was. It was one of those scripts that, when it first surfaced, was (and is still) one of the greatest things I’ve ever read just as a piece of material. And the characters are written in such a way that you want to immerse yourself in it. And Kenny is so incredibly supportive to his performers. He pushes you when you need to be pushed and he’s kind when you need that and he’s really just one of the most extraordinary writer/directors that I have ever worked with.”
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