Just who is the Margaret in ‘Margaret’?

I caught a screening of Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art this week, and afterward an apologetic woman sitting near me asked me what the movie’s title referred to, since the lead character played by Anna Paquin is named Lisa Cohen. (And there is no character named Margaret anywhere in the film.)

People are asking the same question on IMDB.com’s message boards for Margaret. The film’s title is drawn from the poem “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child” by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889). In the movie, Lisa’s high school English teacher (played by Matthew Broderick) reads from the poem during class as the camera stays on Lisa. This is after Lisa has witnessed, and inadvertently helped cause, a gruesome traffic accident that takes the life of a woman she didn’t know (Allison Janney) — a horrific incident that will haunt her throughout the movie.

As a public service to fellow cineastes who might be scratching their heads about the title, The Same Cinema Every Night is happy to step away from the DVD beat and get all literary for the space of one post. Below is the text of Hopkins’ poem; it’s not hard to see why Lonergan chose Margaret for his title, as the poem encapsulates the theme of his film in just a few memorable lines.

Spring and Fall:

to a Young Child

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

— Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889)

It’s nervy of Lonergan to use a poem as a kind of lodestar for a three-hour film, yet an unexpected reward of Margaret is that this movie about teenagers in the 21st century is unabashedly literate — it’s at home in high culture in a way that’s exceedingly rare for an American feature. Yet the movie never comes across as pretentious, or as if Lonergan is talking down to anyone, least of all high school kids. As Lisa’s existence becomes increasingly tumultuous, it becomes increasingly clear how Hopkins’ lines hang over her. The poem could be a direct address to her.

For more on Margaret, click here.

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