An Education

by | Apr 2nd, 2010 | 6:00AM | Filed under: DVD Reviews, Movies

A terrific lumps-and-all coming-of-age story, An Education is more than just a brilliant, beguiling performance from Carey Mulligan. It’s also a hopeful, honest look at an individual and a society on the edge of great, perhaps painful change—and one of the best films of 2009.

Based on Lynn Barber’s 2009 autobiography, An Education follows young Jenny (Carey Mulligan) in her final year at an all-girl’s prep school in the suburbs of London. It’s 1961—the Beatles are still hidden away in Hamburg; the style icons are John and Jackie, not Jimi and Janis; and London has not yet begun to swing. The world is on the cusp of great cultural change and so is Jenny. Preparing for Oxford and eager for a bohemian life of French singers and cigarettes, she’s smarter, more knowing than her classmates and her well-meaning, middle-class parents (who encourage her studies primarily so she’ll find a good man at university). Winning in her self-aware naiveté, the girl yearns to escape to adulthood.

One day in the rain, that escape pulls up in a sharp maroon sports car. David (Peter Sarsgaard) is suave and sophisticated, older and exciting, but also charming and kind. He gives Jenny and her cello a lift, and soon she’s thoroughly seduced not just by David’s grown-up world of smoky jazz clubs and champagne trips to Paris, but also by his love of culture and learning for their own sake.

Carey Mulligan was rightfully nominated for an Oscar for An Education—this is a surefooted, star-making performance graced with a seemingly effortless touch. (The Audrey Hepburn comparisons have been mentioned before, but rightfully so. It’s no coincidence Mulligan is now the front-runner to play Eliza in the My Fair Lady remake.) Beautifully conveying intelligence and confidence as well as doubt and confusion, Mulligan continually turns over both sides of Jenny. Trying on worldliness, she slides easily from a winning smile to a pained scowl to an exasperated roll of eyes that are alternately sparkling and weary. Jenny is a sad rarity in film these days: a smart character who acts it—pondering, questioning, already aware of life’s compromises and disappointments, but also vulnerable to the mistakes even the smart make when they think they have it all figured out.

But this is not a case of a film acting as an appendage to a great performance. Danish director Lone Scherfig and screenwriter Nick Hornby (author of High Fidelity and About a Boy), have crafted a warm and engaging film that smoothly sweeps you along almost without you noticing. It’s fun without resorting to inane hijinks, stylish but honest in its depiction of both the joys and heartbreaks of growing up, and moving without becoming mawkish. Like Mulligan’s portrayal of Jenny, An Education must walk a fine line between breezy promise and tough lessons without coming off jaded or cynical. It does so with a delightful spirit–there should have been two women in the Best Director category this year.

That quality reverberates throughout the cast. The film wouldn’t work if we didn’t fall for Sarsgaard’s David right along with Jenny–he uses his sly squint and vaguely reptilian smile to build an earnest, seductive gentility. The fact that David is Jewish in an England that’s still quietly anti-Semitic gives him a vulnerability Jenny can’t resist, especially when mixed with just the right hint of the mysterious outsider. In the shadow of Mulligan’s triumph, Sarsgaard doesn’t get enough credit for the nuanced balance he brings to David–a man who’s charmed even himself into believing he’s a good guy.

Alfred Molina is wonderful as Jenny’s befuddled father, a man awkwardly trying to bluster his way past fears of world too wide for his understanding. Dominic Cooper (The History Boys, Mamma Mia!) and Rosamund Pike (Surrogates) are terrific as David’s friends and accomplices—Pike especially, deftly playing the “dumb blond” who isn’t aware that her moral complacency exists, let alone is an issue. As Jenny’s literature teacher, Olivia Williams carries the role of “cautionary example” (the over-educated “spinster”) with weary dignity, and Emma Thompson shows up as the film’s societal heavy—the frowning Thatcher-esque warble of the racist, sexist Establishment.

Thanks to those performances, An Education is no existential mope—it’s an entertaining and compelling romance, complete with pitfalls and regrets. What makes the film rewarding on repeat viewings are the layers of ideas about what education and knowledge are, where they come from and what purpose they serve–whether they’re taught in school books or life’s cruel classroom.

Jenny may eventually realize you’re never as smart or mature as you think you are, and that the most important lessons are learned from making stupid mistakes. But ultimately An Education is about wanting more than the narrow options you’re offered–even if pursuing it comes with a price.

26 Responses to “An Education

  1. Richard "The Hammer" Burk
    Posted on April 9, 2010 at 2:42 pm

    The movie was well made but had a hard time keeping my interest. My GF agreed. The movie was slow IMO. Given all the talk about health care that I commented on previously before I watched the movie, I’m sorry but this movie had nothing to do with healthcare or healthcare reform.

    It was simply a movie about a young teenager getting seduced by an older man and thus without knowing the older man was married she threw out her plans (finishing high school or equivalent and going to a prestigious college) for life for the opportunity to be with such a selfish and self-centered man. She accepts his proposal for marriage and then later finds out he is married. Fortunately she is able to follow through on her original plans only not in the way she wanted and thus in a more difficult manner, but eventually you imagine that she learned from her mistakes and follows through on her original plans. There is much more to it like her being a top notch student and her parents making it clear initially that college was the goal so that she could then lead her life as long as she didnt stray from the path they laid out for her. But her older man not only seduced her but her parents and morally corrupted her and the parents. She descended into the man’s moral corruption one step at a time until she discovered he was married and the dream of excitement with an immoral man was no longer appealing at all and she abruptly ended the relationship to return to her previous plans now derailed and delayed. She learned a lesson the hard way rather than listening to her parents and following their advice. Fortunately she found a way to return to her old plans, though modified and delayed. We presume she was able to complete her plans after learning such a hard life lesson.

    I can see where this would be a good movie for a teenage girl to watch and learn a lesson from in the hopes that she will not make such an analogous mistake. Teenagers and parents of teenagers are the likely audience IMO. I just say good luck keeping interest as my interest waned about from about half way to three quarters of the way through.