In my review of Gregory's Girl, I commented that most coming of age films are remembered for the careers they launched rather than their individual merits as pieces of filmmaking. And now that the dust has settled and its BAFTA nominations have become the recent past, it is clear that An Education is part of this truism. Outside of the outstanding central performance by Carey Mulligan, it is an interesting but often ordinary drama, marred by its arch tone and conflicted conclusion.
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.