Film review – Margaret (2011)

Margaret: Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin)
Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin)

Gerard Manley Hopkins’s 1880 poem ‘Spring and Fall’ is addressed to a young child named Márgarét who is experiencing the overwhelming grief that comes with first encountering death and decay in nature. The poet acknowledges Márgarét’s intense emotions, but comments that with time her response to death will be more tempered even though she will become more aware of her own mortality. It’s a poem about the emotional state of an adolescent and a fitting title for a film where the behaviour of a 17-year-old is frequently used to comment on the actions of a young country in the aftermath of a horrific act of terrorism.

Due to lengthy problems in post-production, Margaret was filmed in 2005 and only released in 2011 and yet its post-9/11 politics are still relevant even if they have lost some of their edge ten years later. The end result is a late-but-better-than-never second feature directed by Kenneth Lonergan, arriving over a decade after You Can Count on Me in 2000. Margaret is a drama with nods towards melodrama, although its commentary on the nature of performance and its political subtext make for an unconventional end product. The dialogue is on the brink of being stylised, the tone is on the brink of being comedy and the film style is on the brink of being self-aware. The result is an unnerving film set in a recognisable version of our world but ever so slightly off-kilter.

The ‘Margaret’ of the film is Lisa Cohen, played by Anna Paquin who had a similar role as a supporting character in Spike Lee’s 25th Hour (2002), another New York set drama filled with post-9/11commentary. After witnessing a very traumatic bus accident, which she was indirectly responsible for and resulted in the death of an innocent woman, Lisa goes through a roller coaster of emotions. First she goes through shock, then concern for Maretti the bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) and then outrage that he isn’t feeling as bad about it as she is. Lisa is then determined to see Maretti punished displaying the same amount of outrage she displays during a series of political debates with classmates, where she aggressively condemns terrorism and supports the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the simplest terms.

Lisa is initially like Lady MacBeth; symbolically trying to remove her guilt by washing away the blood splattered on her. She goes on the offensive and purges herself of any thoughts that she may have been culpable by focusing so obsessively on seeing Maretti somehow suffer for his involvement. She is like the country she lives in: self-assured, complex, externally confident to a degree that intimidates, but hiding a deep uncertainty that manifests in destructive ways. She seeks to place blame for a tragic situation where direct blame is difficult to assign, and by becoming increasingly driven by anger and a desire for revenge she loses a lot of the good will and understanding other characters and the audience had given her.

Macbeth is not the only Shakespearian play that Margaret evokes as in the scene following Lisa’s declaration, ‘I would just like somebody to take responsibility for what happened’ is a scene where her English class discuss King Lear. Her teacher John Andrew Van Tassel (Matthew Broderick) is analysing the famous line ‘As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods / They kill us for their sport’ and is determined the class appreciate the traditional interpretation of this line as commenting on the cruel indifference of the universe. This interpretation certainly suits Margaret since it is about a horrible occurrence that has no meaning. However, during the scene a student challenges this reading with an argument that is concerned with the degree in which King Lear is a constructed text filled with such lines designed to draw attention to itself as making a philosophical comment. In this way Margaret is then acknowledging itself as an overtly constructed text designed to deliver social and moral commentary. This self awareness not only re-enforces the extent in which the film reflects post 9-11 issues, but it also taps into another key theme about the nature of performance and fictionalising reality.

Margaret is filled with lines of dialogue about film, theatre and opera with many of the characters, including Lisa, expressing a dislike of such narrative based art forms for being removed from reality. Lisa’s mother Joan (J Smith-Cameron) is an acclaimed stage actor and we see her perform her opening scene twice in exactly the same way despite having arrived at the theatre in very different emotional states. While these small details comment on the artificiality of stories told in cinema and on stage, they don’t undermine the film as they instead critique the way Lisa turns herself into a character in a melodrama. Through the way Lisa places herself in the centre of the drama of the dead woman, Margaret explores the appropriation of grief by individuals and how it can be so self-serving. At its best it is adolescent and self-indulgent while at its worst it is used to justify behaviour and actions that are not usually so justifiable.

Margaret seems to cynically suggest that in the end all issues simply come down to money and politics, with ethics rarely having much to do with it. Sex and love also plays a large part in life, but the way Lisa’s sexual encounters are represented in the film suggests that even sex and love are a blip during the journey that don’t have much meaning in the long run. On the other hand, the final scene during a performance of Jacques Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann presents a glimmer of hope and a strong case that narrative art – like cinema – still has the power to transcend reality and emotionally connect with people when everything else feels muted by cynicism and resignation.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012


  1. Can someone please tell me the name of the actor who played the student who argues with Matthew Broderick about the gods and flies?

  2. The five student characters in the “gods and flies” discussion were in their order of entry: Lisa (Anna Pacquin), Matthew (Nick Grodin), Darren (John Gallagher, jr.), David , Monica (Olivia Thirlby) and, again, David (Jake O’Connor), who challenged the teacher John (Matthew Broderick), who becomes unsettled by David’s question, “What are you saying: A thousand Frenchmen can’t be wrong?”

  3. Very insightful commentary, I really enjoyed this. Thank you for giving me even more to think about re: this haunting film!

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