Review: An Education
Directed by: Lone Scherfig
Written by: Nick Hornby
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Rosamund Pike
Released: 2009 / Genre: Drama / Country: UK / IMDB
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Carey Mulligan is delightful as sixteen-year old Jenny, an idealistic high school student with aspirations of a place at Oxford University and a penchant for the European pop-culture her father doesn’t want her experiencing.
It’s London, 1961. Jenny is stuck between childhood and adulthood. She excels at school and has a real chance of being accepted at the elite Oxford University. At home she sings to French music against her father’s better wishes and dreams of visiting mainland Europe in the hope of discovering what she believes is the free-wheeling and care-free culture she is imprisoned from at home. Jenny is lost amidst her father’s defiant belief in the way her life should proceed, while her mother attends to the washing and dining needs of the household with clockwork precision. It’s the kitchen-sink melodrama without the drama and Jenny is the pressure-cooker ready to explode.
“If people die the moment that they graduate, then surely it’s the things we do beforehand that count.”
On a typically wet day in London, the rain unrelenting, Jenny finds the key to a world outside the protected walls her mother and father cocoon her in. That key is the suave, smooth-talking and alluringly mysterious David Goldman (Peter Sarsgaard). Jenny is quickly hooked – attracted by David’s bulging wallet as well as his looks. He also manages to charm Jenny’s parents, convincing them to let her stay out with him for a late supper and even go to Oxford for the weekend. But it isn’t David’s money or prestige that Jenny falls for, she loves the new adult lifestyle unshackled by parental observation and the strict rules of the school classroom. For the first time in her life she is able to express herself freely and she warms to it like a drug.
An Education is a beautifully measured film about the loss of childhood innocence and the rocky transition from teen-age to adult-age. Nick Hornby’s screenplay, based on the memoirs of British journalist Lynn Barber, superbly captures a culture at a crossroads. The swinging sixties is about to swoop into existence, while women are breaking out of the kitchen and living lives beyond their husband’s reach. Jenny is starting her journey. A release from homework and revision hints at a movement where women find there’s more to life than washing dishes, making dinner and raising a family.
Carey Mulligan is delightful in the role of Jenny, reminding me a little of Audrey Tautou’s glistening spirit in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie. But Mulligan displays a little more defiance amidst her idealistic vision of mainland European culture. Director Lone Scherfig paints Jenny as an intelligent, driven, scholastic achiever, who has an ability to question her own surroundings. She takes nothing at face value – even the romantic attachment to David is built on an attraction to a new world in her eyes that he inhabits with free abandon – and she constantly questions her father’s own hypocrisy. Mulligan embodies these traits with a cute, nubile sexiness that offers a shade of vulnerability to go along with her well-mannered and assured sense of self.
“If you never do anything, you never become anyone.”
She is ably supported by a great ensemble cast including charming boyfriend Peter Sarsgaard, stern head mistress Emma Thompson, regretful school-teacher Olivia Williams, indecisive father Alfred Molina, and airhead socialite Rosamund Pike.
I did feel the film rushed in places for the good of dramatic narrative and the ending is somewhat abrupt even if it does satisfy the conclusion of Jenny’s coming-of-age. And while continuity errors can be forgiven, An Education has enough howlers to rip me from my suspense of disbelief. One scene involves Jenny getting into David’s car during a rainstorm. The rain continues while the pair are in the car, then the director cuts to an exterior shot and the rain has suddenly stopped and the road is miraculously dry. Another scene involves Jenny receiving a birthday present from her parents. A male school friend and wannabe suitor watches her open the present then apologises as he hands her his gift, explaining it’s the same thing. So she leaves it on the table without touching the wrapping paper. There’s a knock at the door and David walks in. Cut back to the table and the wrapped present now sits unwrapped on the table.
An Education is a unique look at growing up, balancing childhood innocence and fresh-faced idealism with the hypocrisy and regret of adults trying to imprint their own misinformed wisdom on to an impressionable youth. Jenny is too wise to fall under the spell and her journey of self-discovery is one of joyfulness and of sadness. Education, it would appear, is not straight forward – it is not necessarily found in books or on classroom blackboards or in a teacher’s lesson notes. Sometimes you have to go out into the world and educate yourself. For Jenny, that’s exactly what she did.
Review by Daniel Stephens – See all reviews