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

    • Currently 5/5 Stars
    Posted on April 4, 2010 at 10:25 am

    I loved this film! You were exactly right Locke! The film is beautiful and the storyline I devoured. I grasped the message of the film An Education. Locke, thanks for these wonderful recommendations you have given me to rent from Redbox, I truly to trust you.

    Carey Mulligan was a wonderful actress with Peter Sarsgaard. It was a great film that I enjoyed, I would give the film an A or five out of five stars.

    • Currently 4/5 Stars
    Posted on April 6, 2010 at 7:08 am

    I never rate movies but this movie is phenominal. happy i watched it.

    • Currently 5/5 Stars
    Posted on April 6, 2010 at 8:47 am

    I knew I was going to love this movie. It captures perfectly the time period and the complexities of growing up.

  1. Patti
    Posted on April 6, 2010 at 9:22 am

    Excellent film! I rented it based on Locke’s suggestion. A coming of age story, “Jenny” is seduced and beguiled by David, a grifter. The enchantment and excitement of the “outside world” beyond her finishing school environment influences Jenny to take risks that jeopardize her final year of prep school as well as her entire future. It was interesting to note that her parents were also enchanted by the same suave talk and manipulations of “David” while mostly concerned about and focused on Jenny’s ability and opportunities to earn her “MRS. DEGREE” at university or elsewhere in the coming years.

    A 5-star film, indeed!

    • Currently 5/5 Stars
    Posted on April 6, 2010 at 9:34 am

    An education – phenomenal movie!

  2. ignorancecosts
    Posted on April 6, 2010 at 9:50 am

    Quite lovely movie, actors excellent, but the reviewer has obviously received their moral ‘education’ from the entertainment industry of the past 50 years. I am so tired of same old failed ‘world-view’ societal view handed down by Hollywood, New York, etc..’It’s o.k. if you get hurt when you break the ‘rules’ and go past the boundaries of historical decency’ no’re only hurting yourself, you’ll be smarter for it and your elders were ignorant’…(sleep with whomever if it pays you momentarily in pleasure, acceptance, status, etc) No matter if society pays the price in emotionally damaged people who don’t know how to commit, children with damaged parents, and a lowered standard of morally accepted behavior, that is still descending. And society pays the price with our pocketbook. Meanwhile, the movie stars get richer while preaching from their penthouses…hey!..Hollywood can start their own health care system with their obscene profits…they aren’t taxed enough either anyway, right Biden?…and those who love the drugs, sex with whomever, and no marriage lifestyle can be in that ‘pool’ of insured!

  3. Edward Adler
    Posted on April 6, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    To Ignorancecosts:

    These movie comments are to be about the movie, NOT your right-wing, political nonsense. If you are looking for bookymen, look in the mirror. It was your political heroes who ran this country into the ground. It was your political people who prevented universal health care, etc. that allowed 10s of thousands to die each year because they didn’t have health insurance,etc. Am I sick and tired of right-wing crap, lies and distortions- you bet!!!

  4. Andy
    Posted on April 6, 2010 at 12:53 pm

    Charming movie. I’ve been wanting to see it and wasn’t disappointed. I don’t think it was fantastic, but it certainly kept our interest and was an intriguing story that was charmingly portrayed. I recommend it.

  5. Andrew
    Posted on April 6, 2010 at 1:23 pm

    ignorancecosts – spoken like a true hipocrite… all these family values right wingers only talk the talk but they are even more morally corrupt that these Democrat “heatens”.
    How many so call conservatives have let shameful immoral lives? and these are the ones that have been caught!
    They speak values and wholesomeness on one side and act depravity on the other!

  6. Michele
    Posted on April 6, 2010 at 2:50 pm

    It’s wonderful. There’s no other way to describe it. It made me want to go back and grow up in that era with Jenny. What a lovely way to fall in love and what a bittersweet lesson to learn! I’d forgotten….

  7. Robert Hawkes
    Posted on April 6, 2010 at 3:40 pm

    The premise that we are to cheer for a star-struck child (no matter how “mature” she seems) and a seducer of schoolgirls just seems creepy to me. Even Alfred Molina couldn’t make the over-written part of the father from sheer ludicrous incredibility. But I suppose we needed a good motive to cheer for the lovers. The tidy feel-good ending, complete with unprecedented voice-over to replace actual further visual narration – all very convenient and trite. A glossy, smug piece of work.

  8. Clay
    Posted on April 6, 2010 at 5:46 pm

    Hey Edward Addled, ignorancecosts is right on the money and very wise. We should all be so discerning about our media choices and consumption, as well as the societal messages they portend. As far as your bleeding heart for the 10s of thousands without healthcare, perhaps they should have gotten a job rather than plopped in front of a TV watching Hollywood trash all day, expecting the govt to come to their rescue.

    • Currently 2/5 Stars
    Jennie Kirk
    Posted on April 6, 2010 at 6:42 pm

    Slow moving movie. Definitely did not live up to all of the hype. Worth watching once, but not any more.

  9. Locke Peterseim
    Locke Peterseim
    Posted on April 6, 2010 at 6:43 pm

    Hi ignorancecosts,

    I’m very glad you enjoyed the film, but at no point in my review do I CONDONE or SUPPORT what David does, nor does the FILM. The thing is, it’s hard to talk up front about the moral position the film takes without getting into SPOILER territory.

    So beware some MILD SPOILERS AHEAD:

    The film makes it VERY clear that Jenny makes the WRONG choices–I don’t see how SHOWING that somehow acts as an ENDORSEMENT of those choices. It would seem to me just the opposite–I’d think An Education would act as a very cautionary tale about what NOT to do, right? What’s wrong with that? Is it because it APPEARS to be a “romance” at first? Sure, but that was the point I was trying to make–we get swept up along with Jenny, so that when she learns a hard lesson, we feel it too.

    As for getting hurt while breaking the rules, I’d be hard pressed to find a human being on this planet who hasn’t learned that lesson. And most films (books, TV, etc) are ABOUT people making mistakes–otherwise they’d be awfully dull, right?

    The point of An Education isn’t that Jenny is some reckless teen who goes wild with sex and drugs–we are repeatedly shown she’s smart, has her head (mostly) on straight, has big dreams beyond just finding a husband. The point is that EVEN people who think they know what they’re doing, don’t. That’s what EDUCATION is–learning you’re not as smart as you think you are, as Jenny does.

    I don’t see how carefully showing the COST of those mistakes promotes anything immoral or wrong–it shows a realistic situation and mistake many people make and it makes it clear who is the villain in this situation. It would seem to me THAT is the film’s “societal message.”

    But I really do appreciate your sharing your reactions to the film — obviously I love the film a lot for a lot of reasons, one of the main ones being that is IS raising issues and saying something, and generates reactions and discussion.

  10. Locke Peterseim
    Locke Peterseim
    Posted on April 6, 2010 at 6:55 pm

    Re: Robert Hawkes

    Again, I think you’re missing the point–An Education doesn’t ask you to “cheer” for Jenny and David–perhaps at first as it’s drawing you in, but (AGAIN, MILD SPOILERS) clearly by the second act we’re starting to see signs that David is not on the up and up. I think, as I said above, that the film sets out to, yes, SHOW a “love struck girl” but then to very clearly show where that got her, what it cost her.

    I fully agree that David dating Jenny is creepy–and I think the casting of Peter Sarsgaard was VERY intentional in that respect: he’s charming and nice and handsome, but there’s always something slightly suspicious about him. That’s why the actor works so well in the role.

    But as for Jenny’s age and the age difference, remember this is a TRUE story that took place 50 years ago. Ask your parents or grandparents about theirs and their friends’ ages and age differences when they became romantically involved 50 or more years ago. Societal standards and expectations were different and this is a HISTORICAL film not a “how to date” manual.

    As for Molina’s father, Jenny’s parents are a very important part of the story–they are MORE than happy for Jenny to give up Oxford and marry an older man and one of the film’s points is that they sort of gladly shuffle her in that direction, making them complacent in her painful lesson as well.

    Again, I don’t think An Education asks us to “cheer for the lovers” at all–the title says it all, it’s about learning tough lessons the hard way. I think the beauty of the film is that it sells the idealistic romantic dream at first–and sells it well–and then turns around makes it VERY clear that dream was a destructive lie.

    • Currently 5/5 Stars
    Edward Adler
    Posted on April 6, 2010 at 11:24 pm

    Hey Clay-head,

    People get sick through no fault of their own, cancer, Parkinson’s Disease, etc. and you have great powers of observation that people who get ill are lazy and are looking for government handouts. Where do get this crap? They are your fellow Americans, people who would love nothing more than to earn a living and have health insurance for themselves and their family. Who the hell do you think you are, superior to others? Just because you may not have illness in your family and may or may not have insurance you think no one else should have it? Don’t bother answering your selfishness is revolting.

  11. moviegoer123
    Posted on April 7, 2010 at 8:17 am

    This film An Education is a great film, it’s Oscar-worthy. The film I would get on DVD in a second.

    And here is a shout-out to Ignorancecosts: From your comment you are making fun of Locke Peterseim. I glanced at Mr. Peterseim’s review and there is no support of what David does or anything that was in the film. Ignorancecosts, you have to give film critics’ respect and in his review, he loved the film and you have to respect Locke’s film criticism. And I’m like Locke, I love the film for a lot of reasons.

  12. D Thomas
    Posted on April 7, 2010 at 9:16 am

    I thought this was supposed to be about a movie review, not politics. But since y’all have opened Pandora’s Box, here goes…
    Virtually ALL of today’s movies, domestic and foreign-made, have the intent to glorify immorality. As the old addage goes, sex sells. Apparently business is booming. Unfortunately, as IgCosts said, society is paying a horrendous price for it. With every paychek I am reminded that the government can freely pillage MY earnings to pay for millions of single parents’ poor choices. I did not sire these children, but I get to pay for them while the “responsible” parties get to go on and play their prurient games. WIC, Medicaid, Foodstamps, LIHEAP, etc all promote irresponsible behavior. I think it’s high time we redefine the term “poor”. All too frequently I see the “safety net” used as a lifestyle of the LAZY. Examples: the woman who takes her child to the Emergency Room for a common cold because she knows that the taxpayers foot the bill; the woman who buys two full carts of groceries with food stamps then immediately wheels over to customer service and DEMANDS a CASH refund; the man who is so poor that he must live in public housing, yet has enough money to go out and get MULTIPLE DUIs; the couple that gets every gov’t hand-out possible, yet doesn’t report the $15,000 per year that she earns “under the table” babysitting for doctors; the perfectly healthy 22 year old who “doesn’t have to worry about ever working” beacuse he has “issues” and collects SSI for life; etc., etc., ad infinitum! IgCosts and Clay are absolutely correct when thay say that we are surrounded by immorality and we don’t need films to glorify it.
    As far as the above examples being “mis-fortunate” and it’s not their fault, I guarantee that when the gov’t teet dries up, they will all be miraculously cured and able to earn their keep. 99% are just plain LAZY!
    Pull your head out, Eddie A. These are accurate depictions of life in the Socialist States of America, not lies and distortions. Of course when it all comes crashing down, which it will, YOU will be the one crying loudest, “What happened?”

    • Currently 2/5 Stars
    Posted on April 7, 2010 at 10:32 am

    Expected more from this movie given the hype. Very boring and predictable.

  13. Richard "The Hammer" Burk
    Posted on April 7, 2010 at 11:26 am

    Oh my, I was all ready to start watching the movie until I started reading all the childish rants and complaining by a group of individuals that have nothing better to do than to blame a group people for some problem or problems that they individually perceive. We already have professional commplainers on radio, tv, and in the newspapers as well as on the internet. Are you capable of having your own informed opinion versus adopting a professional complainer’s opinion and not bothering to independently inform yourself? I mean, really, I hear your tired old arguments and wonder which radio show I heard that on or which tv show I heard that on. Since you seemingly have such great memories, why not do something about the problem you perceive and fix the problem by understanding it from all sides and addressing it appropriately. At some point your just gonna irritate the wrong person and pay for your misguided spew.

    All I get from your complaining is that some part of the system is broken. Well, I think you prefer to complain rather than do something about fixing the problem. You elect leaders to do the work for you and then they dont fix the problem, but rather just make the problem worse. So the other side gets elected and attempts to fix the problems and you yell louder still. To me, you and your leaders sound like the moochers in society. Stop blaming others for your problems. Fix your problems rather than blaming others for you problems. There’s nothing more LAZY than a COMPLAINER! If you think those getting govt assistance in the ways that you assert are lazy, you are surely mistaken. They followed the rules, filled out the paperwork, jumped through hoops and did whatever they could to provide for their family. Doesnt sound at all lazy to me. Lead by example and STOP THE COMPLAINING and start by identifying the problem, researching it from all sides, and fixing it. Oh wait, your much too LAZY to do that.

    I hope to rent the above movie over the next few days and hope that you LAZY COMPLAINERS havent ruined it for me.

  14. Locke Peterseim
    Locke Peterseim
    Posted on April 7, 2010 at 11:49 am

    I should take this opportunity to point out that, despite the subject of some of these comments, the actual film An Education has NOTHING to do with health care reform. LOL

    • Currently 5/5 Stars
    Sonny Drysdale
    Posted on April 7, 2010 at 1:31 pm

    Oustanding performances by all. Reminded me of films i watched in HS in the 60s. Carey Mulligan is a gifted actor. Can’t wait for My Fair Lady

  15. moviegoer123
    Posted on April 7, 2010 at 6:03 pm

    Yeah, Locke–there is nothing in the review or the film itself, it has nothing to deal with the health care reform– I’ve already seen the film and really, the film has no politics, it’s about an education!

  16. georgia87
    Posted on April 8, 2010 at 5:44 am

    Thatcher-esque sexism is an oxymoron, you moron. If you are so smart, quit building strawwomen and pretending you are part of an avant-garde skewering squad.

  17. Locke Peterseim
    Locke Peterseim
    Posted on April 8, 2010 at 11:08 am

    I didn’t say the sexism was “Thatcher-esque,” Georgia. I said the “warble” was–Thompson uses a very Thatcher-like voice of pompous disapproval. But if you are suggesting that women cannot be sexist against their own gender, then I (and the film) would certainly beg to differ.