An Education Reviews
As well as being generally thin on plot, many coming of age films date badly because of the manner in which they invoke their period. Gregory's Girl may have a universal message about falling in and out of love, but it never properly explains why we should feel affection for that particular time period if we didn't grow up in it. In other cases, such as Take Me Home Tonight, the time period may be presented in such a standardised or caricatured way that we don't believe that we are watching the lives of real people.
An Education manages to strike a pretty good balance between the flaws and foibles of the Mellor family and the iconic glamour which we now associate with the early-1960s. The film is very stylish, contrasting the washed-out colour scheme of suburban London with the silk-like glossiness of Paris. Lone Scherfig brings an air of continental glamour to Nick Hornby's distinctly English screenplay. Whole sections seem to resemble A Bout de Souffle or Breakfast at Tiffany's, and Carey Mulligan with her hair up does resemble a young Audrey Hepburn.
Like many films set in this period, An Education is about rebellion against the old order and the acceptable avenues through which young people may advance themselves. But this is not the same old 1960s story involving Mary Quant and The Beatles; as the saying goes, the 1960s didn't really begin until 1963. An Education is set two years prior to this, with much of British society still unchanged since the war, and where the pioneers of the 1950s, such as The Goons, have become part of the furniture.
The central difference between Jenny and her parents is not one of political opinion or social attitudes. It boils down to something a lot simpler: curiosity that there may be another way to live one's life. Jenny's parents are very set in their ways, and have never stopped to consider why it is that they do what they do in the way that they do it. Alfred Molina admits to being scared all his life, which manifests itself in his anti-Semitism and Franco-phobia. Emma Thompson is no better, remarking that she is "sorry for what happened during the war" and dodging the question about the purpose of education.
In contrast to her peers, Jenny is not only intelligent but inquisitive about the world around her. She listens to jazz, speaks French and romanticises about the intellectual culture of Oxford. Being only 16 when the film starts, she is both the first of the baby boomers and the last of the previous generation; she may miss out on a lot of the stereotypical acts of rebellion in which her younger friends may eventually partake.
What attracts Jenny to David is the freeform nature of the life led by him and his friends. This is not a relationship akin to a teenage girl swooning at a pop concert, so much as a seasoned master encouraging his young apprentice. David and his friends are the cultural elite, swanning around Europe like materialistic beatniks who answer to no-one, living and doing as they please and enjoying the pleasures of life and art via seemingly inexhaustible supplies of money. Their lifestyle is an advertisement, to Jenny and to us, for the way that life should be: filled with pleasure and wonder and the best that the world has to offer.
But of course, such a worldview cannot last, and it isn't long before reality begins to intervene. As more details of David's shady dealings come to light, his smile and demeanour take on a creepier quality, until he comes to resemble Harry Lime from The Third Man. Both characters are doing something completely unreasonable and profiting from the despair or misery of others. But more importantly, both David Goldman and Harry Lime remain appealing and attractive characters even as we realise just what complete scoundrels they are. By the time it dawns on us that we have been seduced, it is far too late to escape.
The film does a does a very good job in its first hour of balancing the redundancy of the old world with the failings and unhealthy nature of the new one. In both cases there is a risk of Jenny losing her identity, either by becoming boring like her parents and teachers, or by losing herself to the lifestyle of these shady men. Rosamund Pike's character represents what she could become if she commits herself to David, whether sexually or in accepting his principles carte blanche.
As well as its occasional resemblance to The Third Man, there is a comparison with Blue Velvet, albeit with the genders all reversed. In place of Jeffrey Beaumout, Jenny is the young, overly curious whippersnapper who is thrown into a dark world and gets more than she bargained for. The men in her life reflect the choice open to her, with David standing in for Dorothy as the attractive symbol of danger, and Graham filling in for Sandy as the safe option which the lead character throws away.
The only significant difference, gender roles notwithstanding, is that the heroine finds safety solely in herself rather than her admirers. Carey Mulligan is fantastic as Jenny, creating someone who is flawed and vulnerable and yet resourceful and intelligent - refreshing qualities for a female performance, in a marketplace often dominated by walking clichés in make-up. Mulligan is appropriately understated throughout, and like her subsequent performance in Never Let Me Go, she handles herself with quiet dignity even when the story reaches a moment of heartbreak or hysteria.
For all its charm and appealing qualities, An Education is not without its flaws. Outside of Mulligan's performance, there is an irritable quality to most of its characters. To some extent this is intentional: there is little point putting a repressive school on screen if we don't in turn feel repressed by the characters inhabiting it. But Jenny's two closest friends are underwritten and misjudged, coming off as clunky comic relief which jars with the atmosphere of the film.
This irritation is particularly apparent with David's friends. Dominic Cooper is a fine actor, but there is an overly arch quality to his character which is at first appealing but loses its lustre very quickly. More annoying is Rosumand Pike, who seems completely undeveloped beyond her symbolic role and ends up as little more than a bimbo. Pike may have made a lot of bad choices in her career, but on the basis of this she deserves better.
But the biggest problem with An Education is its final act, where Jenny decides to 'do the right thing', leaving all memories of David behind to re-start her studies. Choosing to go to Oxford after all may indicate a new maturity in Jenny, but she is also allowing herself to fall into the very traps she had tried to avoid - even if it is her decision, she is still doing what is expected of her. It feels like a disappointing cop-out, designed to leave things on an optimistic note but which ultimately reneges on much of the past hour.
An Education is an interesting take on a very well-worn story, made interesting by its stylish evocation of 1960s London and the performance of Carey Mulligan, who thoroughly deserved her BAFTA. It never manages to live up to its heightened reputation, and it doesn't have quite the bite it needs when it really matters. But it still makes for a pleasant if forgettable evening's viewing, containing much in the way of promise to cancel out the disappointment.
The story here concerns a 16 year-old schoolgirl who gets charmed and seduced by a much older man. He takes her out of her boring life and shows her a world she had always wanted to see. Things end up not being really as they seem, but in the end, a resolution is reached, and our lead finds herself a better, richer person as a result of what she's experienced. None of that is really all that new, but ths film is really smart, charming, and quite well played.
The film is set in London in the 60s, and that's totally fine with me. It was a fun period, so it gives some life to the typical romance story. It's not so much about the romance itself though, but the characters, and that's where this film is probably at its strongest. There are some nicely conceived characters, and they are brought to life by some excellent performances. Carey Mulligan gives a wonderful turn in her breakout role as Jenny the schoolgirl. Peter Sarsgarrd is really good as the older gentleman who romances her, but the performance I really enjoyed watching was that of the one by Alfred Molina as Jenny's father. He's a joy to watch as he deals with being an uptight dad who, like his daughter, finds himself seduced and charmed by her gentleman caller.
This is a really good and enjoyable film, and it is smart, but I don't think it's quite a masterpiece. I recognize that there is probably something more that this film has to say, but it seems as if it is buried underneath the surface. I don't think this film is all fluff, but it would have been possible to take whatever deep meaning this film has and bring it closer to the surface while still remaining a breezy romantic coming-of-age tale.
If you like swinging music, the high culture world of London, or just want to see a well done variation on an old theme complete with excellent performances, then you should really check this one out.
Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is attractive, doing well at school and set to land a place at Oxford. Then she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), an older man. He dazzles her with the edgy world beyond her '60s suburban life, and soon a very different destiny opens up before her. But everything is not quite as it seems.
Essentially this is a coming-of-age story but it's handled with such care and restraint by Danish director Lone Scherfig, that it becomes so much more. It's beautifully shot with a fine rendering of 1960's English suburban life. A lot of attention has been given to this, and it shows. There are blink and you'll miss them subtleties between the characters and the acting by everyone involved is first class. Alfred Molina as Jenny's domineering but loving father; Peter Sarsgaard with his perfectly honed ability to be charming yet bordering on creepy; and Emma Thompson lends some weight with her matriarchal head-mistress. The real star though, is Carey Mulligan. She exudes wisdom yet naivete, confident yet doubtful. It's a marvellous performance and thoroughly deserving of her Oscar nomination. Throughout the course of the film there is an anticipation of tragedy that never really transpires, but it doesn't matter. What we are given is so much more believable with these very real and nuanced characters culminating into a quite beautiful rite of passage tale.
As Jenny finds it hard to resist the attractive and flamboyant lifestyle of David, so did I in resisting this film with it's exquisite attention to detail and all round, solid, confident filmmaking.
There is a bit of Breakfast At Tiffiny's going on here, from the "strong woman making here way in the world" point of view, to the style and grace that the film's female lead, Carey Mulligan, portrays when she gets "made up"; echoing the charm of Audrey Hepburn.
Mulligan is amazing as the 16 year old who as we first meet her has a life dedicated to hard study and doing all the right things in order to enter Oxford. She keenly watches the women around her, from her marmish lit teacher to her housefrau mother and knows that she wants more out of life. She has brains and an eye for art, but feels stifled by a regime that has her studying Latin (which the film slyly has a character point out, will be a dead language in 50 years).
Into her life walks Peter Sarsgaard who slowly weaves his spell, giving her a taste of a glamorous life of classical music recitals, jazz nightclubs and jaunts to Paris, along the way managing to totally charm Mulligan's parents as well.
One might think Sarsgaard is a snake for setting his sights on a 16 year old girl, and ultimately he is, though for reasons I will not reveal here; but again I repeat, Mulligan has the maturity and intellect of a woman twice her age.
The performances here are first rate throughout, though I wasn't completely sold on the characters of Sarsgaard's partner and his GF. The interplay between Sarsgarrd and Mulligan are bits of perfection, as is the performance of Alfred Molina as Mulligan's father, a man who in one telling scene admits to his daughter that he is a frightened man and wants his daughter to be educated so that she will not suffer the same affliction. The way in which Sarsgaard plays father and mother and the way they brighten when he gives them attention is both subtle and sad.
Ms. Mulligan I just have to say has created an oscar worthy character. So many little things done just right, balancing her "adulthood" with the little chinks in her armor (which come naturally from being a teenager). There is a scene early on when a sort of boyfriend comes to tea where the camera focuses on Mulligan as the boy begins saying all the wrong things to her parents - Mulligan's face goes from blank, to horrified, to bemused as she realizes that this boy is beneath her in every way and therefore it doesn't matter what kind of impression he makes.
The script is intelligent and witty while the cinematography is for the most part direct and doesn't knock you over the head with its art (thankfully not getting in the way of the story) - although there are several nice touches including a shot of the two lovers filmed from behind as they sit and gaze at the sun setting on the Seine.
I did notice a couple of incongruities (I swear I don't intentionally look for 'em, they just jump out at me). First of all in a driving scene the men are in the front and women in the back - but when they exit the car in the next scene, Mulligan is in the front passenger seat. Secondly there is a scene where Sarsgaard parks his car and shuts off the engine to have a conversation with Mulligan - but the next scene shows the outside of the car, with exhaust condensation pouring out of the car's tailpipe. Still, these type of things thankfully don't have any effect on the film, which does a wonderful job of walking the tightrope and not falling into triteness.
There is so much here to not only admire but recommend, including a brief but wonderful appearance by the always fabulous Emma Thompson as the school's headmistress, a bit which is a beautifully written and performed, full of mannered British glory. It is the scenes with Thompson that truly bring the film's point and vision home.