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.

an education, film, carey mullugan, uk, romance, drama, school,
“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.

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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.

an education, film, carey mulligan, british,
“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 StephensSee all reviews

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    Dan O. Reply

    I liked the performances from the whole cast, and the story was actually very involving, but it was kind of hard to feel anything for this girl and her family. Good Review!

  2. Avatar
    rtm Reply

    I agree w/ you about the ending but all the performances more than make up for this. I didn’t think I was going to enjoy it as much as I did because of the subject matter, but I’m glad I gave it a chance. Carey definitely um, carried this movie with aplomb. All the others are great in their roles as well.

    Btw, I asked you a question about your reply in my post today about Rosamund @ the Bafta.

  3. Avatar
    Andrew Buckle Reply

    I love Carey Mulligan. I think she gave the best female performance last year, and she is gorgeous in this. Really satisfying and absorbing film until the final minutes, which I thought was really let down by the lazy montage and the abrupt ending, as you say. Good review!

  4. Avatar
    Rodney Reply

    I enjoyed this film as well (and I missed those continuity errors!) and felt Mulligan was superb in the role: but I think Molina’s performance is criminally unerrated – he steals every scene he’s in, and it’s a shame he’s not in more.

    Great film, and excellent review of it, Dan!

  5. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    @Dan O.: Thanks for stopping by Dan. I liked the family and Carey Mulligan – I thought much of the film’s appeal came from Mulligan’s performance – she was interesting, different and multi-dimensional.

    @rtm: It’s interesting that the general concensus appears to agree that the ending wasn’t quite as good as the rest of the film. It wasn’t a long film – it was less than 100 minutes I think…perhaps there was scope for another 5/10mins, I don’t think it would have made the film too long.

    The Rosamund clip has turned up:

    @Andrew: Cheers Andrew, thanks for visiting the site. I can only foresee big things for Mulligan – terrific actress.

    @Rodney: Yeah, Molina is great. I made sure I mentioned him in the review. The only actor I purposely didn’t mention was Dominic Cooper – the fact I didn’t know his name was only part of the reason!

  6. Avatar
    Jaccstev Reply

    Carey Mulligan is stunning as Jenny. Her every action is an honest one and she is a heroine the viewer wants to follow.

  7. Avatar
    rtm Reply

    Awesome, thank you Dan! Oh boy, poor Dominic looks so embarrassed by her. I’ve since found the clip of Ross introducing Butler as a presenter… VERY funny and so true! 😀

    Back to An Education, I totally agree w/ Rodney about Molina. He’s one of the most underrated actors out there but he does steal scenes in everything he’s in.

  8. Avatar
    Caz Reply

    I loved this film and performance from Carey Mulligan. I found that I could relate to her character so much and remember some of the feelings from being that age. I found myself crying as much as she did at the end, was very emotional! Especially when I had my heart broken just before watching this film.

    I love that you have included my two favorite quotes from this film under the pictures too!

  9. Avatar
    Castor Reply

    A pretty solid coming-of-age movie with some good performances. I didn’t think it was Best Picture worthy and I felt the ending was fumbled. Why go through all this only to show her back in school like nothing happened?

  10. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    @Caz: Funny that I should pick those two quotes but they are great lines and really capture the essence of the movie. It’s wonderful when a film touches the viewer as much as this one did for you.

    @Jaccstev: So true. A really wonderful performance which sets the film apart from the pretenders.

  11. Avatar
    Tom Clift Reply

    Good review – you summed up nicely how I felt about the film, with one exception: you were far, far kinder to the ending than I was. The combination of montage and voiceover in the final five minutes was amateurish, cringe-worthy and left me seriously re-evaluating how I felt about an otherwise great film.

  12. Avatar
    Jamie McIntyre Reply

    Seems like a promising movie. Really rarely do I encounter a blog that’s both educative and entertaining, and let me tell you, you have hit the nail on the head. Nicely done reviewing the movie.

  13. Avatar
    David Reply

    This is one of those films you can watch again and again. Carey’s performance is wonderful but the rest of the cast support her so well too. As for the soundtrack and the art direction – sumptuous.

    Yes, the ending feels odd, almost an afterthought. I wouldn’t extend it, I’d remove it:

    Jenny: Miss Stubbs, I need your help
    Miss Stubbs: I was so hoping that’s what you were going to say that

    Miss Stubbs moves to her book shelf and extracts a textbook.

    Fade to black, fade in Duffy, then some text along the lines of:

    After a year of private tuition, her school agreed to let her sit the Common Entrance Exam and Jenny was admitted to St Anne’s College, Oxford in 1962.


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