An Education DVD/Movie Review
An Education (2009)
Starring: Carey Mulligan, PeterSarsgaard, Alfred Molina
Reviewed by: S.I.
An Education is about growing up, and breaking out. Its 16-year-old Jenny Mellor’s (Carey Mulligan) coming-of-age, just as it is Carey Mullingan’s and Danish director Lone Scherfig’s – Oscar nomination, and with Scherfig’s directing earning the film a best picture Oscar nomination. Set in early 1960s England, An Education is based on journalist Lynn Barber’s 2003 personal essay. At times the film is well-crafted, flawlessly acted; only to be ruined by characters add a story frustratingly out of emotional reach. Worse, you’re left wondering why you should care about any of it. It’s a whole lot of nothing; its style over substance that by the end will leave you asking “so what?”
Jenny Mellor is a middle-class English schoolgirl from Twickenham. Her strict parents Jack and Marjorie (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) are obsessed with her education. They fuss over her o”levels and A”levels, press her to study Latin, and force her to join the orchestra. All this in the hopes of Jenny getting into Oxford. On a rainy afternoon, with a cello in hand after an orchestra rehearsal, a stranger, David Goldman (Peter Sarsgaard) offers her a lift. He is friendly, seemingly genuinely interested in her tales about school. As Lynn Barber remembered, little did she realize that her being a schoolgirl was precisely why David was so interested? David is nearly twice her age, but he soon persuades her parents to let him take her out on Friday and Saturday nights to the opera, clubs art auctions, five star restaurants, and eventually even a weekend in Paris. The real David Goldman took Lynn Baber as far as Amsterdam and Bruges. Over the course of their escapades Jenny meets David’s business associate Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Danny’s worldly and fashionable girlfriend, Helen (Rosamund Pike). Before long Jenny learns that David and his friends aren’t rich sophisticates, but something far sleazier.
Even though Carey Mulligan was 22 at the time of shooting she seizes upon Jenny’s innocent adolescence perfectly. She starts off as a giggling, clever schoolgirl. She speaks perfect French, even though she has ever been to France, and has an affinity for classical art. She’s smarter than everyone around her, but has had no real life experiences. She’s all theory and no practice. After meeting David, Jenny morphs into a stylish sophisticate who dances at jazz clubs and jets off to Paris an weekends. It isn’t just the hairdos and designer dresses that make Jenny seem older as time goes by – it’s the way Mulligan holds her cigarette or over time starts to look directly into Sarsgaard’s eyes.
But sophisticate doesn’t make a girl into a woman, even if she ends up engaged.
Aside from the dodgy English absent, Peter Sarsgaard does a capable job as David. At first, it’s easy to see why Jenny wants him. He’s interested in her and her parents, he drives a Bristol, and he’s Jewish – to Jenny this is exotic because she’s never met a Jew before. David has beguiling finesses that Sarsgaard plays with ease. It’s remarkable that with each amoral character he plays, Sarsgaard can still pull you into his web, despite your doubts and suspicions.
While Jenny might be easily taken with David her parents reaction is far more surprising. Despite David’s vagueness about his profession and the considerable age gap between him and Jenny, her parents are eager for them to be together. There are never any objections to their relationship, not even any tough questions. It’s as if Jack and Marjorie Mellor want to be fooled. As Lynn barber describes her parents – they were new to the middle class and they were determined that their daughter remained there or move up. An education might be the great equalizer, but in the pre-feminist, pre-swinging London era of the 1960s good husband was an even better equalizer.
Jenny and David’s affair in An Education is a by-product of the gender inequalities and class barriers of the 1960s. The film, however, barely addresses any of these issues. Class only manifests itself in Jenny’s parent’s desire to get her to Oxford. They remember how hard life was during the war, but their acceptable alternative presents itself with David. What girl needs an education or a job after she’s been married off?
Like most coming-of –age films An Education is predictable. You can see it all coming before Jenny’s desire to go to Paris is predictable. Paris seems to be only dream destination for every lonely, desperate Anglophone in film and literature. The real Jenny actually journeyed top Bruges and Amsterdam and yet it is Paris – once again – that is romanticized. The film’s other problem is that it can’t figure out its tone. Its one part light-hearted romp and one part up it nearly clashes with the film’s (and Jenny’s) world view. It’s not totally convincing.
Lone Scherfig does give an excellent representative of the 1960s – from the designer dresses to the drab school uniforms. An Education captures the spirit of England’s 1960s but in it desperate effort for sentimental nostalgia it glides over the inequalities and class warfare. For all its charm, the film, like Barber’s essay, feel pointless. It’s difficult to care about another schoolgirl getting the run-around from an older man. It’s an average and forgettable film with a few shining performances.