An Education (2009) dir. Lone Scherfig
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike
By Alan Bacchus
I never could see why "An Education" was exalted so highly by virtually everyone who saw it – critics or audiences. I had the privilege of seeing it at Sundance, and came out thinking ‘meh’. In fact, I was so indifferent I didn’t even bother writing a review. And so when it won the international Audience Award I was shocked. Second time around, knowing how the film ends, it’s a different experience, though much the same reaction. Is that all?
Carey Mulligan plays Jenny, a smart 16 year old attending private school in 1961 London. Her good grades and high standing with her teachers put her on track to go to Oxford. In fact, her father (Alfred Molina) is so vigilant with Oxford, it becomes the dominant conversation at dinner. All that changes when Jenny meets a charming and handsome bachelor, David (Peter Sarsgaard), a man who, despite being over twice his age, courts her with a sly but careful determination.
Jenny, smitten with the attention and the worldly cultured lifestyle he leads, is not shy to reciprocate David’s affection. Jenny soon leaves behind her scholastic aspirations and goes on a whirlwind romantic journey with David who takes her from London’s West End to the shops of Paris and all stops of bohemia in between. The more Jenny forces herself into womanhood, the more we know this heavenly bliss will come at a price. The lustre of David’s charm eventually wears down revealing to Jenny an education into life more challenging than anything she’s tested on in school.
With the film centred acutely on Jenny’s point of view the film succeeds admirably because of Carey Mulligan’s performance. She richly deserves her accolades. Her face, though relatively plain and, for lack of a better word, ordinary, shows a remarkable range of inner thoughts with only the slightest degrees of change. She has an ability to just raise an eyebrow or turn her eyes to plunge us deep into the unspoken emotions not said through her words.
Writer Nick Hornby and director Lone Scherfig also succeed in capturing the folly of youth, and specifically the freedom of the pre-hippie 60’s era. Considering the delicateness of having an older man court and teenage girl, miraculously Scherfig manages to make the romance of David and Jenny evolve naturally.
Knowing how the film ends, however, increases the frustration I had during my initial screening. For someone as cultured as David his desire for someone so young and immature never reconciled adequately enough for me to believe their romance. Even though we’re within Jenny’s point of view, and thus not supposed to enter the thoughts of the other characters, the motivations of David never coalesce. Just what was David’s angle? The moment he saw her in the rain walking with her cello, was he attracted to her, sexually? Was he truly in love with Jenny? Or did he see her as something to be conquered, or convert into his playboy world? Or was he just as immature as Jenny? And so I couldn’t help think that David was the most interesting character to examine. Jenny’s reaction to such a charming gentleman is easy to understand, but not so much the older man who has much more to lose than she.
The other glaring weak spot is Jenny father, played by Alfred Molina. Normally a wonderful actor, but as Jack, he's plays him so comically affable it feels like he's acting in a different picture. Ultimately it’s the father’s fault for believing David’s charm and a hypocrite for letting Jenny discard her scholastic goals. And so Jack’s inability to take action or responsibility is so emasculating to his character we desperately desire an explanation.
Everything seems to work out in the end, without anyone truly being called to task or punished for their actions and choices. David perhaps, but his wife seems to brush off his philandering too casually with a smug reaction like “oh no, not again”. Jenny gets into Oxford with ease, leaving her actions in the film as a mere ‘learning experience’ for her. But then again, it is the title of the film, so maybe this is all we should have expected.
“An Education” is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment