‘Margaret’ finally goes free

Posted by · 4:19 pm · August 4th, 2011

And you thought “The Tree of Life” had a protracted journey to its eventual release. It’s well over two years since I first wrote about the woes of Kenneth Lonergan’s chronically delayed sophomore feature, “Margaret,” and even then, it was a stale issue. The film was shot in 2005 — long before co-producers Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella passed on, long before leading lady Anna Paquin’s career was transformed by “True Blood” — and has languished in post-production purgatory (with occasional trips into legal hell) ever since.

Indeed, the wait for “Margaret” simply to travel from set to screen has now exceeded the already frustrating five-year gap between Lonergan’s marvelous, Oscar-nominated debut, “You Can Count on Me,” and the production of his follow-up. Some blamed Lonergan’s perfectionism in the editing room, others an unruly, 168-page shooting script; whispered reports from test screenings weren’t overly encouraging. For better or worse, I had assumed by now, the film was lost to us.

Happily, I was wrong. Making good on a brief but firm promise made a year ago, distributor Fox Searchlight has named a September 30 release date for the film.

New York and Los Angeles audiences will lay eyes on it first, with the extent of the expansion yet to be determined. Despite the timing, it seems the film will not be playing any of the autumn festivals, from which some might deduce a certain lack of confidence in the film — on paper, an indie drama from Lonergan should be festival catnip — but could equally be put down to protectiveness on the part of Searchlight.

The stories about “Margaret”‘s offscreen troubles have long since eclipsed any talk of the film itself; with many critics no doubt eager to seize upon the film and assess what the root of the trouble might be, quietly slipping it into theaters without too much advance buzz either way could be the most sensible strategy. (The comparatively early release date suggests, hardly surprisingly, that Searchlight has higher awards expectations for “The Descendants” and even “Martha Marcy May Marlene.”)

What should we expect from “Margaret,” then? In case you’ve forgotten the film’s essential pitch, it’s reportedly a character-oriented drama mapping out the aftermath of a Manhattan school-bus accident, with Paquin as a traumatised 17 year-old witness to the events, Matt Damon as her teacher and Mark Ruffalo as the bus operator with whom Paquin’s character becomes legally entangled. (Margaret, by the way, isn’t the Paquin character’s name — the title is a poetic reference.)

This all sounds like rich material for a writer as humane and socially aware as Lonergan; “You Can Count on Me,” like much of his theatrical work, used intimate personal crises to spider into a larger portrait of community malaise, and “Margaret” promises to expand on that instinct with a wider spread of subjects and characters. Whether that expansion is beneficial remains to be seen: some artists thrive on a sprawling canvas, but the length of Lonergan’s struggle to complete a final cut to his satisfaction raises concerns that he might not have a handle on his material.

Martin Scorsese, it has been been repeatedly quoted over the years, described an early cut of the film as a “masterpiece”; other test-screening witnesses, including commenters on this site, have described it (or possibly a different cut) as sorely unfocused. What cut we’ll be seeing in September is uncertain, though we do have assurance that it will be Lonergan’s — through the film’s assorted legal wrangles (detailed here), he retained creative control of his difficult baby.

One hopes the final film we see is the result of a satisfied artist having worked his way through a creative blockage, and not merely an incomplete artistic surrender of sorts. (Meanwhile, the six-year timewarp of watching it could prove a double-edged sword: Paquin’s arguably a more marketable name these days, but will audiences find it distracting watching the 29 year-old actress in a role her image has subsequently outgrown?) Either way, I’m now more curious to see “Margaret” than just about any other high-end offering this season, and relieved that a talent as valuable as Lonergan — and everyone else, really — can finally move on to pastures new.

→ 8 Comments Tags: , , , , , , | Filed in: Daily

8 responses so far

  • 1 8-04-2011 at 5:58 pm

    JC said...

    So glad that you wrote about this Guy. Nice to see a final update of sorts and that we’ll get to take in the film soon. It would be pretty amusing if “Margaret” of all things really shook things up this season.

  • 2 8-04-2011 at 6:00 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    Guy will you make any effort to travel to the states for this release?

  • 3 8-04-2011 at 6:11 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    I should be so lucky! Much as I wish I could afford to jet off to the US on a whim to see just one film, I’ll just have to wait for “Margaret” to make its way over. With any luck, it’ll show up at the London Film Festival in October.

  • 4 8-04-2011 at 6:41 pm

    m1 said...

    Once I found out this news, I took another look at my predictions. I think the best shot at a nomination this film has is in the editing category. Thoughts?

  • 5 8-04-2011 at 8:46 pm

    Danny said...

    I saw a screening of Margaret maybe 4 years ago, probably the same one others have described as sorely unfocused. My main memory was of many dramatic scenes inexplicably cut off too soon, and many unnecessary scenery shots going on for too long, seriously testing the audience’s patience.

    I hope the movie’s final cut is its best edit possible, and that that is an edit that makes for a movie that works.

    At the time I was thinking there is no way anyone could think this edit is ready for an audience.

  • 6 8-04-2011 at 9:06 pm

    stanley said...

    I read the screenplay way back when. Hopefully the final version is better than what I read on the page. Long and unfocused, the story stumbled on dramatic “issue” scenes instead of clear character development. Saving moment was the accident scene itself, which was beautifully staged. Unfortunately, it made the rest of the script look pretty bad in comparison

  • 7 8-04-2011 at 10:51 pm

    red_wine said...

    It is kind of surprising Lonergan has theatrical cut after so many years. I think the DVD might be even more interesting if they include all the deleted scenes for us to get a handle of why it was so difficult to edit this film.

  • 8 8-10-2011 at 5:08 pm

    michi said...

    I read a post by someone who’s involved in this movie. He claims the release cut, due out in Sept, is not Lonergan/Scorcese’s cut. The producer, Gilbert, had final say on cut and is releasing his own unfocused version, so he can then go out and sue Lonergan for not delivering a releasable version. Apparently, Lonergan’s version was 10 minutes over the contracted timeline. It’s very sad that a promising project is going to end up on the DVD pile quickly. Lonergan is so talented.