Kenneth Lonergan’s 2011 movie Margaret, his vexed sequel to You Can Count on Me (you may have read the NYT Magazine piece on “Lonergan’s Thwarted Masterpiece”), could plausibly considered as a film adaptation of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ great poem “Spring and Fall.” That’s pushing the boundaries of how we usually define an adaptation, but the movie can serve as an intriguing limit case for how far the concept can be stretched.
Márgarét, áre you gríevingOver Goldengrove unleaving?Leáves like the things of man, youWith your fresh thoughts care for, can you?Ah! ás the heart grows olderIt will come to such sights colderBy and by, nor spare a sighThough worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;And yet you wíll weep and know why.Now no matter, child, the name:Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressedWhat heart heard of, ghost guessed:It ís the blight man was born for,It is Margaret you mourn for.
One of many details about the film that the producers probably were not crazy about is the fact that there is no character in it named Margaret. The movie stars Anna Paquin as Lisa Cohen, a troubled Manhattan private school teenager (Paquin is 30 now with twins but was only 23 or so when the movie’s shooting wrapped in 2005), raised by an actress single mother, who witnesses and bears some responsibility for a tragic bus accident that leads to a pedestrian’s death. The movie reminded me to a surprising degree of the excellent recent Iranian art-house hit A Separation: both movies use a similar structure to explore the legal, psychological, and ethical aftermath of a deadly accident, paying close to attention to the impact on this process of class differences and class privilege.
I thought Paquin gave a really good performance as Lisa, a pretty insufferable yet, to me, still sympathetic, spoiled and unhappy teenager trying to figure out how to be an ethical person or how to respond ethically to a tragedy.
Lisa is Hopkins’ Margaret (King Lear is another intertext, by the way). The main thrust of the movie explores the process by which she “weeps” and “know[s] why,” coming to “sights colder” and encountering the “blight man was born for”, namely an understanding of death and loss.
The movie is very interested in pedagogy and classroom experience and how “learning” of various forms occurs. Two of the primary supporting roles are played by Matthew Broderick (who apparently ended up bankrolling part of the film) and Matt Damon as teachers at this Dalton or St Ann’s-like NYC tony private school. The Damon character is specified as being from Indiana, so you know he’s upstanding and a bit naive. You really start to feel for these earnest teachers (or at least I did) as they struggle to teach and expand the horizons of their very bright, privileged, rather unbearably narcissistic charges. (Although I also felt a little envious at how quick the students are to talk and argue in class!) The title of the movie comes from a particular scene where Broderick is teaching “Spring and Fall”, but the themes of the poem extend throughout the movie as Lisa undergoes hard lessons in self-awareness and moving beyond her self-centered worldview.
I just found this “interactive feature” that tries to match short clips from the film to particular lines in the poem— I think the connections could use some further glossing, though (I just watched the video for “And yet you will weep and know why” and am not clear why the makers of this widget chose that scene in particular for this line).
We watched the 150-minute theatrical release, but now I kind of wish we’d gone for the three-hour director’s cut. The version we saw is a strange and somewhat awkward movie but also at times a ravishingly beautiful one that offers all kinds of food for thought — I haven’t even touched on what it does with theater and opera (the moving final scene involved a kind of catharsis as Lisa and her Broadway actress mother watch Offenbach’s The Tales Of Hoffmann at the Met) or how it works as a post- 9/11 movie exploring the consequences of that trauma in and for NYC (remember, shooting was completed back in 2005).
This is a good piece, from a blog about music in film, that presses on a line from the movie, Lisa’s protest, “My life isn’t an opera!” As the author of the blog argues, Margaret ultimately does become not just operatic but a kind of opera in film. And I think one could make a similar claim about the film’s relationship to Hopkins’ poem. All in all, it’s a movie with interesting things to say about cross-media representations and influences.