As Kenneth Lonergan's egocentric epic nears its 10th anniversary, Steph Green looks back on the film's remarkable lead turn
In Performance Review, writers go deep on the performances that continue to obsess or fascinate them years after a film's release. To coincide with the 10th anniversary of Margaret, Steph Green looks back at the inspired casting of Anna Paquin
“I’m not fucking dramatising anything! I was there, and you weren’t, and if I happen to express myself a little hyperbolically, Emily, that’s just the way I talk. I can’t help it if my mother’s an actress. Why are you being so fucking strident?”
This outburst, screamed at a grieving adult two-thirds of the way into Margaret, is neatly reflective of both a relatable “nobody understands me!” teenager and the stark arrogance of a girl who has never once apologised for her behaviour. Such is the brilliance of the film, in which the epic and the everyday are packaged into the body of one five-foot-four girl: Anna Paquin, and a performance of masterful proportions.
Margaret, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year after being released in 2011 following a six-year delay, focuses on Lisa’s journey to something resembling maturity… or as director Kenneth Lonergan calls it, to “discovering the rest of the world exists.” After Margaret is involved in a traumatic traffic accident that results in a pedestrian dying in her arms, she must navigate her own guilt while dealing with familiar teenage woes, from fighting with her mother to losing her virginity.
Enlivening this role is Anna Paquin in a career-best performance, centring this tricky, self-centred character within the film’s vast urban sprawl. By playing on the public legacy of her own precocious childhood, Paquin’s performance forms a fascinating lens to view Lisa’s journey from childishness to maturity.
When Paquin won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her work in the 1993 film The Piano, she became the second youngest person in history to win an Oscar. It’s this legacy that informed her public persona and consequent performances: the image of a 11-year-old child in a jewelled navy beret, clasping the coveted statuette in front of Hollywood’s best and brightest. What’s more, when we think of Paquin we can't help but think of the role that she won for: a precocious child who upends her mother’s happiness by snitching about her affair, and the ceiling-shattering decibel of her shriek.
With this in mind, Lonergan’s casting of Paquin in Margaret was an ingenious touch. It’s clear within minutes of meeting her that Lisa is pretty unlikeable: brash, arrogant, and a self-described “little rich girl.” Though we struggle to warm to her or relate to her privilege, the character is nonetheless a welcome change; the coming-of-age genre is full of dreamily quiet girls who stare out of windows and internalize their inner torment to distancing effect. It’s fascinating to watch a teenager experience an event of this magnitude without resorting to hackneyed portrayals of girlhood – Paquin positively bulldozes her way through the film, giving us a narcissist’s view of proceedings.
Paquin throws everything at Lisa to reflect the space she thinks she takes up in the city’s vastness. She walks with a practised, attention-garnering wiggle. She speaks loudly, and talks over people. Her clipped line delivery is straight out of a Whit Stillman movie: the quintessential bourgeois New Yorker who peppers her overly verbose vocabulary with hip colloquialisms. Lonergan’s script is long and wordy, and Paquin delivers lines at breakneck speed; it’s like Lisa is afraid she won’t be able to deliver all her oh-so-clever rebuttals before someone tells her to shut up or get out. Her excuse for everything is “I can’t help the way I feel” – the statement of someone who has never had to censor her feelings or behaviour due to an extreme amount of privilege.
Paquin’s delivery of Lonergan’s script keeps a tight grasp on tone: lines that could veer into comedy remain tinged with pathos. When Lisa spits that she hates opera because “it’s, like, their entire reason for existing is proving how loud they can be,” it’s obvious in a quietly sad way that she – dramatic and loud – is unable to see the irony. Later on, talking with the traffic accident victim’s best friend, Emily, she explains that as she held the dying woman, she felt like she temporarily became her daughter. Disgusted, Emily replies: “This is not an opera! It’s not you it’s happening to! You have no right to falsify other people’s lives!”
It takes a deft hand to root this kind of person in the realm of likeable and relatable. Behind her beady eyes and perma-frown, there’s subtle anguish in Paquin’s face that tells us Lisa truly believes she is doing the right thing. She’s just frustrated that no one else gets it. This results in one of the most infuriatingly relatable cinematic depictions of being a teenager put to screen, reflecting the all-consuming resentment that can arise when you feel you’re not being listened to.
In one heartbreaking scene, Lisa’s mother (J. Smith-Cameron) confides her woes to her daughter, only to be met with an unspeakably cruel and dismissive response: “It’s so trivial, why are you bothering me with all this?” When Lisa behaves like a little monster, it's hard not to recall our own long-buried teenage memories, instances of speaking to our mothers in the same way. There’s a callous edge to Paquin’s delivery, just enough, that sends a chill down your spine.
Thing is, we're able to see through Paquin’s performance of bravado: the physical effort it takes to jut out her chin with forced confidence, or the way that, in a millisecond, she's able to mask her true crestfallen feelings when her absent father cancels their holiday together. Despite the opening tragedy of the traffic accident, Margaret is ultimately a naturalistic film about both the big and small moments of one girl's life. And for every neurotic decision Lisa makes, from seducing her teacher (Matt Damon) to losing her virginity to a Culkin brother, the trauma only lingers in, not dominates, the narrative.
This is something the director’s cut fleshes out: whereas the 151-minute theatrical cut pays more attention to the traffic accident and the resulting wrongful death suit, the 189-minute cut gives Paquin a chance to flex her acting muscles further. A scene in an abortion office, a hilariously strange drama class at school, and an awkward post-coital chat, are such new vignettes that colour the edges of Lisa’s world.
With the film’s lengthy runtime, we’re invited to live inside this ghoulish version of New York in queasily epic scope. The atmosphere is uneasy: we’re a couple of years post-9/11 and skyscrapers are filmed with morose detail, like gravestones against the sky. Lonergan takes us out of Lisa’s self-centred world by playing with the sound mixing to exacerbate the noise of New York; in multiple scenes we hear the conversations of nearby strangers overlapping more loudly than we should, creating a disquieting cacophony of urban noise that only emphasises Lisa’s smallness.
“The idea behind it was there was this terrible thing that had happened to her that was eating her alive,” Lonergan explained, “and the world is going along its business and not stopping to pay attention to her writhing agony.” A plane in a cold blue sky, or a snaking line of congested traffic in the evening darkness, become poetic evocations of a world that is simply trying to carry on with weary grit. Paquin carries the weight of Lonergan’s intimidating vision on her petite shoulders, walking a tightrope of wobbling tone with astonishing control.
At the film’s operatic finale, when Lisa finally begins to demolish her wall of braggadocio through a tearful reconciliation with her mother, we see Paquin peel away the artifice she has built up for Lisa for the past three hours. Margaret is sprawling enough to warrant multiple interpretations, but ultimately, it’s a film about trauma – how we should be kinder to our past selves, who were simply trying to navigate life’s sticky mess in the only ways we knew. For a child actress who “had some horrific experiences,” this cathartic bildungsroman of a film feels all the more potent thanks to Anna Paquin’s inspired participation.
Margaret (Theatrical Cut) is available to stream on Disney+. Margaret (Director’s Cut) is available to rent on Amazon Prime.