A film review by Craig J. Koban February 18, 2009

Rank:  #19


2009, PG-13, 100 mins.


Jenny: Carey Mulligan / David: Peter Sarsgaard / Jack: Alfred Molina / Marjorie: Cara Seymour / Headmistress: Emma Thompson

Directed by Lone Scherfig / Written by Nick Hornby, based on a memoir by Lynn Barber

AN EDUCATION has a premise that many, at face value, will find unnerving: A young, virginal 16-year-old girl that becomes the target of a 35-year-old sophisticate as he eventually romances her over and gets her into bed.  

Yet, the small miracle of the film is that it never once makes this potentially disconcerting relationship one that is tawdry and sensationalistic.  The romance here, in a way, is one of mutual equals:  She is not a petty and hopelessly naïve adolescent victim and he is not a one-note, lecherous, and unsavory fiend.  The girl, despite her relative age, is a wondrously independent and intelligent spirit that knows precisely what she is getting into and willfully becomes engulfed in the  world of culture and spiritual exploration that the man offers to her.  Only when the situation becomes too good to be true does her true education begin. 

The very notion of this relationship seems unrelentingly creepy, but AN EDUCATION – based on a vivid memoir by British journalist Lynn Barber, a well know writer that, when she was 16, had a two year fling with a man late in his 30’s  - never feels squirm-inducing, largely because of the way the screenwriter (Nick Hornby of HIGH FIDELITY and ABOUT A BOY fame) and the director (gifted Danish auteur Lone Scherfig) gives a remarkable depth to the characters and never once falls victim to the traps of so many other predictable and perfunctory coming-of-age dramas.  

The film is certainly a cautionary one (just when you think that the man of your dreams is too good to be true, he usually is, not to mention the emotional perils of entering into a romance with a man old enough to be your father), but it rarely trivializes its central relationship with a shabby and sickening veneer.  The man may not be a suitable figure in the girl's life, but he does grow to care for and respect her without overtly taking advantage of her youth and innocence.  The girl, on the other hand, goes into her fling with a level head and a spirit of adventure: The man is her portal in discovering the possibilities both around and within her and, through the good and ultimately the bad times with him, she becomes a finer and more self-actualized person.  By the end of it all, she becomes the truly empowered one of the two. 

Aside from the fascinating portrayal of this unlikeliest of screen romances (which reveals a basic human truth that learning valuable life lessons oftentimes comes with traumatic consequences), AN EDUCATION also succeeds by looking at the texture of sexual politics in early 1960’s London and how a woman’s (make that a young girl’s) choices during this time seemed both endless and limited.  The way the film balances the gender dynamics of both the central relationship in the film with the scholastic and larger social norms of the period is compelling.  The girl in question becomes a woman not just through her fling with the man, but also through realizing the importance of her scholastic endeavors and how they, through hard work, can also be seen as a liberating force during a time when there were very little options for woman.  The central dilemma for the girl, at first, is that she somewhat narrowly sees the man as the only gateway to fulfillment, but when she realizes that the superficial luxuries that he introduces her are just that, she learns and grows as a person. 

The aforementioned girl is named Jenny (played in an astoundingly mature and exquisite performance by newcomer Carey Mulligan, more on her in a bit) and she is a bright 16-year-old A-Student living in tidy and cozy London suburb in 1961 with her prim and proper parents (played respectively by Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour).  Her parents, especially her deeply smothering father, have encouraged their daughter to aspire to the heights of an Oxford education, and it does seem that Jenny is a tremendously smart and determined individual (her Latin, however needs a bit of work).  Aside from her school work and her extracurricular gig playing the cello, Jenny has secret aspirations and passions of her own.  She yearns to live the life of a mature sophisticate: that of a independent and assured woman smoking cigarettes in her dream Paris cafe, listening to her favorite Juliette Greco’s tunes, absorbing the finest of French New Wave Cinema, and becoming enraptured in all things cultural that her stuffy and conformist middle-class London upbringing cannot provide for her.  It’s important to consider that this is a time before the Fab Four, before woman’s lib, and before enlightened sexual norms made a dent into the fabric of a post-war nation.  In short: the life Jenny's parents and school provide for her allow for none of her aspirations to happen. 

One day she meets a strange, but very cultured, well spoken, and charming man Jewish man named David (Peter Sarsgaard, with a pitch perfect English timbre and suave sophistication) that offers her and her cello a ride home one day during a downpour of rain.   Despite his outwardly innocent façade, there is something deeply seductive and charismatic about this man to Jenny, and slowly but surely David does indeed find ways to subtly insinuate himself into her life.  He is a mysterious entity that offers a hope for escape, so it’s no wonder that Jenny quickly falls for the man.  David, on the other hand, is not out for a quick sexual fling with the barely legal Jenny: he sees potential in her as a witty, urbane, and attractive companion.  He brings her along to the thrilling and fetching lifestyle of travel, nightly jazz clubs, art galleries, auctions, and, yes, eventually, sex…but the latter is not something David forces nor rushes her into: Initially, he just wants her along for the ride, and his friends (Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike) also greet her with welcome arms.  In Jenny's mind, she is in a state of euphoric glee. 

David not only becomes an irresistible force to Jenny, but also to her priggish and overly protective parents.  Jenny’s dad is not, say, very Jew-friendly, but David is such a smooth charmer that he manages to impress dear old dad to no end.  He is so intoxicated with David that he even allows Jenny to spend a weekend with David on what he thinks is a pilgrimage to Oxford to meet C.S. Lewis (David claims to be his old friend).   Of course, David does not have any ties at all to the literary icon, but this does not worry Jenny so much: she is so taken in with the opulent and ultra-groovy lifestyle that he’s introduced her to.  However, the more David begins to lure Jenny into his world, the more duplicitous it is revealed to her, so much so that she beings to see that a possible life with him is fraught with problems outside of their age difference.   She learns, as she must, that her sheltered life of her parents and prep school in no way prepared her for the deeply sobering and hurtful lessons that she learns as a result of her problematic relationship with David. 

The way the relationship between David and Jenny unfolds is the film’s triumph: you never are really sure where it’s heading, even when you are sure that there is just something not quite right about David.  The audience’s journey towards uncovering the skeletons in David’s closet mirrors the emotional trek of Jenny, as she traverses the always-delicate road from interest, infatuation, love, and ultimately a realization that all her feelings were for naught.  The relationship, despite its obvious issues, is still presented in a romantic and tender fashion.   

The key to this is the tricky interpretation of David himself, as through the brilliant focus of Sarsgaard, one of our most underappreciated actors. The way that he manages to find a seemingly impossible dichotomy between being a sincere, affable, and inordinately pleasant-minded suitor and a mendacious and opportunistic predator is astounding.  The intrinsically compelling aspect of his character is that, if you exclude his nefarious ways and secrets he harbors away from Jenny, he truly and deeply cares for this woman and does not want to hurt her.  More often than not, he is so blindly enraptured with being with this girl and enjoying her company that he cannot compel himself to see how wrong it is to be with her.   

And then there is Jenny, played in an indelible introductory performance by Mulligan.  She has been often compared to Audrey Hepburn by many a critic, and I can certainly see why: She exudes a cool and collected authority as well as a picturesque natural beauty and elegance.  Moreover, Mulligan never once feels like she does not inhabit the fragile mindset of her 16-year old character (she is 24 in real life), which is not something you can attribute to too many older actors trying to come off as younger.  What she captures with such a raw acuity and precision is the faceted emotional makeup of Jenny, as she goes from an ordinary/nobody teen to a graceful, soul searching, and cultivated persona and finally to a mature woman that begins to comprehend and understand the mistakes she has willfully made.  A lesser, greenhorn actress would have had difficulty relaying the trickier aspects of this character with an authentic compassion and earnestness, but Mulligan is so graceful, so fetching, and so quietly empowered that you never once doubt the towering veracity of her performance.  She is an actress that just intuitively compels our attention, and she is a star in the making…for sure. 

There are other performances that I admired as well, like the manner Alfred Molina navigates between being an aggressively paternal figure to Jenny while displaying a nurturing and loving side to him as well (no easy task).  Two other performances are also stellar, but also highlight a grievance I have with the film: Olivia Williams and Emma Thompson are convincingly strong playing two scholastic female influences to Jenny, but their articulate and nuanced performances are almost squandered on the underwritten nature of their respective roles.  Then there are two other nagging issues, like an ending that seems to rush itself with a bit too much haste, not to mention a scene late in the film where Jenny locates evidence against David’s character that is hidden in a not-so-hidden location, which strains credulity too much.  Yet, AN EDUCATION still emerges as a beguiling, frequently evocative, and wonderfully passionate coming-of-age melodrama.   It succeeds on the strength of its overall narrative (that never follows a preordained course for these types of films) and by the unimpeachably high pedigree of its lead performances.  More significantly, the film introduces a superlative new talent in Mulligan, the breakthrough star of 2009 that more than deserves her comparisons to other past movie icons.  She simply radiates on the  screen with a classical naturalism and effervescent charm.  

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