Film review – Margaret (2011)

14 June 2012
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
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Film review – The Kids Are All Right (2010)

6 September 2010
The Kids Are All Right: Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore)

Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore)

Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are a middle-class and middle-aged couple living a happy domestic life with their teenage children. Their domesticity and relationship is put to the test when Paul (Mark Ruffalo) enters the picture. Paul is the (until now) anonymous donor whose sperm allowed Nic and Jules to have their children and those children now want to get to know their biological father. As things start to get bumpy director and co-writer Lisa Cholodenko keeps a handle on all the characters, relationships and dynamics beautifully so that she is able to seamlessly move the film from moments of humour, to tense awkwardness to heartfelt sincerity and then back again.

The first scene where we see Nic and Jules kiss, the camera lingers ever so slightly on the moment to establish that these two central characters are both women who are in a loving, long-term relationship. Beyond that moment the fact that this film is about a family with two women as the parents is treated as a given. The film has acknowledged that we rarely see same-sex couples played by major Hollywood stars and then it moves on. This is just one of the many elements that makes The Kids Are All Right such a pleasingly enlightened and non-judgemental film.

The Kids Are All Right: Paul (Mark Ruffalo)

Paul (Mark Ruffalo)

The Kids Are All Right is also a very effective domestic comedy/drama and a lot of that is due to the performances. Bening, Moore and Ruffalo are magnificent, and Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson are also wonderful as Joni and Laser, the two teenage children. As the film’s title suggests (laughing in the face of classic “Won’t somebody please think of the children!” contrived hysteria), the children are doing fine, especially compared to their three parents who are having a harder time dealing with the situation than they are. The interaction between these five characters is so natural and Cholodenko has done a great job capturing the dynamics of uncomfortable situations, conversations with double meanings and moments where people let down their barriers to truly connect with each other.

The Kids Are All Right is a film about marriage, family and parenthood and it explores these themes with far more integrity, insight and humour than many other films; not despite its depiction of a non nuclear family but possibly because of it. Losing the traditional and conservative paradigm of what constitutes a family, without the slightest degree of sensationalism, has allowed Cholodenko to break through the melodrama, schmaltz and shallow insincerity that often plagues family drama films. Instead we get to enjoy the company of, and see some of ourselves in, this ensemble of flawed and immensely likeable characters.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – Shutter Island (2010)

16 February 2010

Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio)

Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of the novel Shutter Island (by Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone author Dennis Lehane) is a film that operates on a heightened level that almost makes a traditional narrative analysis redundant. While the core story of two US Marshals in 1954 investigating the seemingly impossible disappearance of an escapee from an island based prison for the criminally insane is compelling, the film’s ultimate achievement is its manipulation of perception on a filmic level. Even elements that may trick the untrained eye and ear into thinking that they are experiencing a flawed film are deliberately calculated stylistic and narrative elements that only fully make sense after the final dénouement.

Scorsese has often displayed a subjective flair in his filmmaking particularly in early films such as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. In Shutter Island he pushes this one step further by representing Shutter Island’s Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane as an almost other worldly place designed to snare and foil US Marshal Teddy Daniels. Played by Leonardo DiCaprio in one of his strongest performances to-date, Daniels is a classic melancholic masculine Scorsese protagonist. Daniels is haunted by the death of his wife and his experiences as a soldier liberating the Dachau concentration camp. He is unpredictable, volatile and easily provoked. Yet he also possesses aspects of Twin Peaks’s memorable Special Agent Dale Cooper character in that he has a brilliant investigative mind, he is intuitive and he seems to receive information about the case from his dreams.

Dr Cawley (Ben Kingsley), Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio)

While there are elements of Shutter Island that would not feel out of place in a David Lynch film, Scorsese’s real point-of-reference must surely be Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Scorsese may have even read Geoffrey Cocks’s book The Wolf at the Door where Cocks argues that the subtext of The Shining was the Holocaust. Not only does Scorsese use a lot of music by the Kubrick favoured composer György Ligeti but the use of sound, tracking shots and production design distinctively presents the Ashecliffe Hospital in a similar way to The Overlook Hotel in The Shining. Both are buildings filled with labyrinthine spaces that threaten to consume their occupants.

Shutter Island is the work of a true master who is completely accomplished in the art of filmmaking. It is apparent from almost the beginning of Shutter Island that there is something strange going on and the enjoyment is in the experience of watching it all unfold. Shutter Island is a film that leaves you feeling satisfied but during the end credits your brain will start to churn. As the film’s impact sinks deeper and deeper into your mind you will start to truly appreciate how ingenious it is on so many levels. An hour later you will be making plans to see it again.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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