An Education (2009, Scherfig)
We have all seen this story before. A young inexperienced girl meets an attractive older man who seems to have everything. He is not what he seems and her world comes crashing down but through all of it she has learned a lesson and it has all been a growing experience. The goal for these types of films, because they are so familiar, is to find a new level of authenticity within the story and characters and to essentially bring something new to the table. With the combination of Lone Sherfig’s direction Nick Hornby’s screenplay and the ensemble cast, An Education does that.
Jenny (Carey Mulligan) has an idea about what she wants in life. She wants to lead an interesting life filled with interesting people and not be stuck in the place she grew up which she sees as being populated by dull people. Her parents want very badly for her to go to Oxford which she is studying constantly for. One day she meets David, an older man who has the culture and sophistication she has been looking for, especially compared to Graham the local boy her age who likes her (adorable!). She soon finds herself involved with him and his friends Helen and Denny. She begins to question everything about her life leading up to this point. She questions her studying and where that will eventually take her. She questions what she really wants in life and whether or not an education will provide her the life experience she is looking to have. As far as she can tell, it will not and she uses her English teacher Miss Stubbs as a prime example of what her life could potentially be if she continues her education and all she sees is dull and boring. Soon though, we can see the cracks in David and his friends’ lives and even though Jenny is much slower on the uptake, or rather on making the right choice, she eventually learns a lesson and is left to reassess her life and what she ultimately wants from it.
There is so much going on in this film and a lot of elements that are worth touching upon. It is important to mention Danish director Lone Scherfig’s accomplishments. She does an admirable job of transferring Jenny’s views on both her school life and her life and times with Davis to the audience. The school scenes are all very monotone in color, using lots of blues and steady shots. All of the scenes with David and his friends pop with color and even have a slightly unsteady camera as Jenny tracks through unfamiliar waters. The Paris montage is a prime example of this. The scenes with only Jenny and David that have anything to do with sex take on a very different vibe. They are darker in visually in tone. Scherfig also take a slightly unconventional way of shooting certain scenes that really enhances the content of the scene as opposed to having technique overshadow everything. The scene that springs to mind is the one where Jenny first meets David and gets into his car. The scene is shot with two different POV shots going back and forth. We either see David looking at the camera because of Jenny’s point of view or we see Jenny looking at the camera because of David’s point of view. The effect makes itself known but never distracts and is very effective.
What is there to be said about Carey Mulligan’s performance that has not already been said? She has had a bit of buzz surrounding her in the UK since her appearance on the critically acclaimed Doctor Who episode “Blink” aired 2 years ago in which she has a starring role and made a remarkable impression on fans of the show with some declaring Sally Sparrow (her character) as their favorite Companion of the Doctor’s despite her appearing in only one episode. Her role in The Seagull on stage with Peter Sarsgaard last year earned her a lot of buzz as well. All she needed was a role like this in a film to allow for an official public entrance into the world of film. Very rarely is there this much buzz anticipating the potential in a young woman’s career. I know I have not been this excited for quite some time. Ellen Page is the last person I could think of. But before that…I have no idea. Next year she will appear in an adaptation of my second favorite novel Never Let Me Go with Keira Knightley, Andrew Garfield (of Boy A), Sally Hawkins and Charlotte Rampling. (Words cannot explain how nervous and excited I am by the film and especially with this ridiculous cast)
Back to Mulligan though, she radiates every second here. There are so many moments when her face reads so clearly and so authentically to anyone watching her. We fully believe every moment Jenny is living through. The scene when she lowers her nightie for David was incredible. There were so many emotions reading on her face in that one moment. Jenny makes a lot of bad decisions but can we blame her? She shows off a bit too much but can we blame her for that either? While Jenny is not perfect, Mulligan and the script make it impossible to be upset or frustrated with her because both the performance by Mulligan and the script make Jenny’s actions so relatable and understandable. Would any of us do anything differently? Mulligan even steals scenes from Emma Thompson. Emma Thompson! Carey Mulligan has an ageless quality about her. She could belong in any time. She appears to be wise beyond her years and extremely mature but she captures the naiveté, youth and inexperience of Jenny so well. She also excels in showing us Jenny’s progress as a character and her growing maturity by the end.
All of the other actors excel here as well. While the character of Jenny’s father Jack borders on caricature much of the time, Alfred Molina is superb in the role and brings humor to the proceedings. He also really nails the scene when he brings Jenny tea and biscuits at the end; powerful stuff. Olivia Williams, while not having any flashy scenes, manages to create the film’s most interesting character besides Jenny and David, Miss Stubbs. Cara Seymour, a highly underrated actress is great as Jenny’s mother. She wants to relate to her and she can but she never allows herself to outright link herself with her daughter. Emma Thompson has a pretty flat role but its monotony sort of outlines all of the sexism going on within girls’ schools at the time, an issue I wish had been explored slightly more blatantly. Even Matthew Beard as Graham did a great job. He was so adorable! I needed to mention that again. Also, thank you Sally Hawkins for popping up in one scene, a great scene, and leaving me to want more Sally Hawkins. Thanks a lot.
For me the standout besides Mulligan was Peter Sarsgaard in what I believe to be his best performance yet. Ok so the accent was only passable but it did not distract at all. Sarsgaard’s performances have always been too subtle for Academy voters. Molina’s performance will be the one recognized and not undeservedly but I wish Sarsgaard was getting more attention. David is not nearly as simplistic as other roles like this have been portrayed. He is a scumbag, charming, manipulative and all of those lovely traits we have come to know and hate in these characters. There is an ambiguity with David though that is beautifully played by the actor. He really does like Jenny and her parents even but he is unable to harness the genuine feelings he has for people into anything healthy. The speech he makes to Jenny about being clever after she finds out about his job pertains to more than just his job. He is really talking about the way he lives in every respect and the audience does not catch onto this until after it is revealed that he is married. We get the sense that he has never really grown up. The nicknames he places with Jenny and he is creepy, but oddly sincere and very very childlike. He reveals the different layers of David through little moments such as the way he treats Jenny when they go to the old woman’s house, the way he looks at her as she dances with Denny, etc. The scene when David asks Jenny to marry her is why his performance should be getting serious awards consideration. The subtleties are spellbinding. I was taken aback by his facial expressions in these moments. Then there is the moment in the car which I did not see coming. Sarsgaard plays the charming schemer role in An Education but he brings so much more to the role which is one of the reasons that the film brings something new to the table with this story.
There are other reasons that An Education brings something new to the table. One very important reason is the constant assertion that sex does not play a role in Jenny’s newfound lifestyle. It IS the lifestyle and her love for French things, sophistication, interesting conversations, jazz clubs, fun clothes and exciting adventures that is causing her to stray from her studies. It is not some passionate romance. Sex plays such a small part as can be seen in the great short scene after Jenny has sex when she observes “All of that poetry and all of those songs for something that lasts no time at all”. There are also a lot of little moments that make the film quite special. An example is the auction scene and the way David signals to Jenny to bid. The film also allows Jenny to be manipulative as well. She is shown manipulating her parents along with David in order for them to get what they want instead of the predictable route of Jenny watching amazed as David does all of the work.
The film is not perfect. The consequences of Jenny’s actions and of David’s actions are not very felt and last for too short a time. The film also wraps up all of Jenny’s problems with a montage of her studying. I love the scene when she goes to Miss Stubbs to apologize but once she asks for the help, the film does not observe nearly as acutely as it did before. I do wish a few issues had been touched on a bit more like as I mentioned the conditions of women’s schools in the 60’s. Then there is the last scene. My friend who I saw it with said after it was over “It’s like they showed the film to a moronic test audience that needed even more finalization to the already too wrapped up ending and this was the result”. I said “I feel like I just walked out of a mediocre film even though I really loved it.” That last minute is a killjoy. There is the narration that makes no sense. There is the confirmation that she indeed went to Oxford even though the scene before shows us that she was accepted!! There is the overly clichéd statements about life and learning that the film already blatantly depicts throughout. What a horrible note to end on. Horrible, just horrible.
Despite these problems, An Education on the whole is a marvelous and deftly observed story about a girl growing up in the 60’s and grappling with her options. Featuring a star making performance by Mulligan, a great ensemble cast, a nicely layered script by author Nick Hornby and subtle and creative direction by Lone Scherfig, An Education is one of my favorite films of the year.