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In the cinema certain historical periods have become associated with a
particular set of ideas. The 1960s represent change, progress and
excitement whereas the 1950s are frequently regarded as a period of
stifling social conformity. Of course, the "swinging sixties" did not
necessarily start to swing on 1st January 1960, and in retrospect the
first few years of the decade seem to have more in common with the
conformist fifties than with the "swinging London" era of the later
sixties. Certainly, many young people during this period regarded
London as a dull, conservative place, and looked eagerly to foreign
cities, especially Paris, as being more exciting and radical. There was
an enthusiasm for everything French- French philosophy, French
literature, French cinema, French fashions, even French jazz and French
cigarettes. This Francophilia doubtless included elements of wishful
thinking- De Gaulle's Fifth Republic was a more conservative place than
many Britons realised- but it was nevertheless an influential
phenomenon. It is a phenomenon explored in Julian Barnes' novel
"Metroland" (later filmed), and also in this film.
The main character is Jenny, a teenage schoolgirl living in the London suburb of Twickenham in 1961. Jenny is highly intelligent, and is studying hard with a view to taking the entrance exams to Oxford University. She is not, however, really sure why she wants to go to Oxford, except that she is being pushed to do so by her parents who feel that university is the best place for her to meet a wealthy husband.
Jenny's life changes when she meets a handsome and charming older man named David. They quickly become close friends and begin dating. David is clearly wealthy, and claims to be an art dealer and property developer. More important to Jenny, however, is his knowledge of culture. He is well up with all the latest intellectual and artistic fashions from France and takes her to concerts and jazz clubs. What really impresses her is that he takes her to Paris. Eventually, David proposes to Jenny and she accepts and drops out of school without taking her A-levels, her Oxford ambitions abandoned.
Many parents would be worried about the idea of their sixteen-year-old daughter being romanced by a thirty-something man, especially if his influence leads her to neglect her education, but Jenny's parents, especially her complacent, Philistine father, seem strangely unconcerned. His argument is that as Jenny has now found a wealthy suitor there will be no need for her to use Oxford as a dating agency. His one objection to David as a son-in-law seems to be that he is Jewish. (Anti-Semitism was unfortunately widespread in British society at this period). Yet it is obvious to the audience that there is a darker side to David's character. His business methods are, to say the least, not beyond reproach (the character may have been based upon the notorious slum landlord Peter Rachman) and he never takes Jenny to his home, always meeting her in a luxurious flat belonging to his friend and business partner Danny. Eventually, even Jenny herself begins to suspect that David is not all he seems.
The title "An Education" can be understood on two levels. As a coming-of-age drama it narrates Jenny's metaphorical "education" in the wider sense of learning lessons about life. Yet it obviously also deals with her education in the narrower, literal sense of the word. It raises similar issues to another great British film, "Educating Rita", namely whether it is formal academic education or informal education to be gained in the outside world which is the more valuable. Jenny drops out of school because she believes that she can better acquire knowledge, both of high culture and of the ways of the world, through her life with David than through academic study. (Jenny's vision of her future life envisages her living with David in Paris on the Rive Gauche, reading Sartre, smoking Gauloises and going to the cinema to see the latest productions of the Nouvelle Vague). It seems hard to blame her for this conclusion, given that in the film the main advocate of the life academic is her headmistress, an intellectual snob and virulent anti-Semite ("The Jews killed Our Lord!") who serves as a reminder that an educated mind is not necessarily an open one. It is only when she becomes disillusioned with David that Jenny starts to reassess her priorities.
Her performance in the lead role has led to Carey Mulligan being hailed as the "new Audrey Hepburn", although the main point of resemblance seems to be that at one point in the film Jenny sports (as many young women doubtless did in the early sixties) a Hepburn-style hairdo. Nevertheless, on the basis of this performance Mulligan would appear to be a highly promising star in the making, perhaps the new Keira Knightley. Although she is actually 24, she always seems entirely believable as a naive young teenager. Other good contributions come from Peter Sarsgaard as the smooth, reptilian David, Alfred Molina as Jenny's comical, blustering father, Rosamund Pike as Danny's airheaded mistress Helen and Emma Thompson in an excellent cameo as the obnoxious headmistress.
Period drama is something the British cinema often does well, and "An Education" falls within this tradition, even though it has a Danish director, Lone Scherfig. 2009 has already seen two good British costume dramas, "The Young Victoria" and "Dorian Gray", but "An Education" is an even better one. It is not only a study of a girl on the verge of womanhood, but also an exploration of issues such as social class, racism and the value of education. One of the best British films of recent years. I hope that the Academy will remember it when next year's Oscars are being handed out. 9/10
An Education works little wonders even if it's an imperfect film.
There's much to recommend about it as this season's British indie movie
with something different going for it. It's something about its
character and the circumstances of what happens to her that's
fascinating: sixteen year old Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a smart girl with
a love for Parisian culture and music and movies, is pressured to get
into Oxford, not even so much for the English degree to teach English
(or Latin as case might be) but for the status. Enter in David
(Sarsgard), an older man who rides up to Jenny one rainy day and offers
her a ride home. From then on its a romantic affair between the two,
where he whisks her to wonderful jazz clubs and auctions, and even,
eventually, to Paris. A twist happens late in the film that turns all
of this upside down, but I dare not reveal it here.
What makes it interesting is not so much the teen girl with adult male aspect (on that side of the coin it's like a British version of Manhattan only told from the girl's point of view and a less conflicted man in the situation), but how the relationship is perceived by her parents and peers and teachers. This isn't some illicit affair to be kept under wraps, but something that (refreshingly for a movie at least) is out in the open, and with that comes the awkward stares and upturned eyebrows, and as well the charm that David exudes on Jenny's parents. It's as much a film about romance as it is about class, about how Jenny fits in or could fit in to a society in Britain in 1961, and how David fits in and how her parents see her fitting in (or, for that matter, how David fits others in as a property re-seller to the black community). And of course the aspect of Oxford vs. getting married, the only options for Jenny at a crucial point.
And now for the rest of the good and... well, not so much bad but just underwhelming. The good is this newcomer Carey Mulligan. One can't wait but to see her in other films; she's a natural at playing a great range of emotions required for this complex character, a girl who thinks and acts and talks like a woman but yet still sort of a girl at the same time (see Jenny's trip to Paris for that). Supporting players like Molina and Williams are also very good, giving their scenes the proper 'umph' needed and gravitas in some key scenes. Sarsgaard fares a little less well with a good performance but less than convincing accent. The screenplay by Nick Nornby (for once he's adapting a book!) and it's written with a natural ear for the way characters at that time might speak. The direction is clear and concise and just handsome enough to be competent. The last ten minutes, however, seem rushed on all of the ends of the storytelling, after such a good momentum has been building on the crest of Jenny's future.
It's a very good movie where we care about the characters and see some life lessons learned with (usually) unsentimental results. It's a tragic-comic crumpet of a movie, dear and serious, amusing but very telling about human nature. 7.5/10
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Carey Mulligan does a fine job in the lead role, but Jenny is a
problematic construction, and she's not the only one.
Jenny is 16 going on 17, and is markedly intelligent as well as quick-witted and self-confident, but she is also naive, particularly about men. She tentatively enters an affair with a fortyish fellow with a cool Bristol sports car. That much can be chalked up to naiveté. She is bothered that he is an unprincipled estate agent and a smooth and opportunistic liar, but not bothered enough to reject his marriage proposal. In spite of the fact that his proposal is apparently an impulsive response to a moment of jealousy, as well as the fact that he never-- not once-- invites her to his home, or says a single word about his family, she accepts his ring and drops out of school. That's not only an example of Jenny being naive; it also reveals how the writer-- the self-aggrandizing memoirist, Lynn Barber-- manipulates her story beyond plausibility, apparently in order to crucify her father.
Which brings us to Dad, a thankless role played by Alfred Molina using only two notes in his otherwise full-octave range. As a father, he is straight out of an essay by an aggrieved teenager. Accorded no complexity, no depth, not even any consistency, Dad begins as a dictum-spouting martinet determined to get his only offspring into Oxford, but then-- in a character change as abrupt as Dr. Jekyll's-- he completely reverses himself when Mr. Fortyish shows up with his posh car, lavish gifts, and equally lavish whoppers. Suddenly Dad thinks it's a jolly grand idea that his 17-year-old daughter quit school and marry an older man about whom he knows next to nothing. The father is a callow teenager's vision of an injudicious parent, a character sculpted by vindictive hindsight, not mature insight. (The mother is better only for being mostly silent and long-suffering. No insight there either.)
The film tries to seduce the audience, the way Jenny is seduced, with the fast car, great art and music, posh clothes and champagne. It might have worked, but only if the characters were believable enough to care a whit about them.
Overall, well done. The talented Carey Mulligan is definitely someone to watch as her career develops. She plays her role as mature, smart and savvy -- almost a bit more than was believable, considering the circumstances of the character. Her suave and worldly love interest is well played by Peter Sarsgaard, and the knot in your gut tightens as the story unfolds and you sense where it's heading. I loved the way Rosamund Pike played the girlfriend of Sarsgaard's business partner. Both she and the mother seemed to illustrate the razor's edge walked by women of the time who had to smile and pretend everything was fine even when it wasn't. So much of this movie shows women's struggle at many levels to claim choices for themselves that didn't involve sacrificing their intelligence, dignity, dreams or humanity. I think the story's initially smooth momentum becomes a bit choppy in the latter part of the film, which seemed not quite sure how to wrap up the story to a conclusion. Despite some shortcomings, the film is still definitely worth seeing.
Take a star high school senior shooting for Oxford, and add a charming man more like thirty who seduces her (and you) with his utterly kind, gentle, clever, and generous nature.
You can guess what follows. And in a way, that's the let down of the whole thing. The idea is a simple one, yet it unfolds so beautifully, with some extraordinary acting, it is quite engrossing. John Peter Sarsgaard as David, the seducer, is totally convincing, even though we know fairly early that something isn't quite what it seems. As events gradually devolve, so does his character, to a final, deflated ending. The heroine, Jenny, swept into the mess, is played with predictable delicacy by Carey Mulligan, and in a surprise she is really a great supporting role, of sorts, for Sarsgaard, even though she is the star.
Part of the appeal of the movie is the period, early 1960s, as England is finally getting out of the huge debts and doldrums of World War II and the swinging 60s are ready to fly (the Beatles are together but not well known). The old fashioned world, conservative and conventional, of Jenny and her family is dismal and yet comfortable, adorned with small worldly decorations. David brings Jenny to modern life, with its jazzy clubs and trips to Paris, and it's hard not to say his version of life is far superior. Oxford, after all, is so old-school.
It's a joy on all these levels. It doesn't quite have the naturalness it always needs, a few are scenes forced, and the plot lacks complexity (not that complexity is needed, but it needs something to layer it up). Most off-putting of all is the overly precocious Jenny, whose speeches to her schoolmistress and her teacher, and to David, sound like literature, not like a real 17 year old struggling to escape a sheltered upbringing. It doesn't ring true, and the movie depends on believability.
You don't need to know the plot to understand that this movie has all of the magic of true art-a wonderful story, an actress and director seemingly out of nowhere, and a cinematic style that is dramatic and completely engrossing and satisfying. What is amazing is that this film shows how American cinema has completely lost its touch. In the old studio days young American actresses, and actresses from around the world were somehow discovered and developed. When is the last time that has happened in Hollywood? Our movie machine is run by a bunch of bean counters that don't know art from bank notes, casting the same tired names over and over again in endless overblown works of absolute drivel. Here is a movie with a relatively small budget, relatively unknown actors, and a plot that seems pedestrian. If you don't see this film you will probably miss one of the most touching, true and completely cinematic works of many years. This movie is a miracle.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Most of us are aware of Lynn Barber as the occasionally controversial columnist and interviewer in the posh Sunday papers. But whatever she creates has to compete with her own life story for hair-raising melodrama. An Education is based on her autobiographical piece and the screenplay is by none other than Nick Hornby. Right from the opening credits, the impeccably chosen soundtrack date-stamps each episode in the rite of passage of only-sixteen Jenny, west London surburban jailbait. Carey Mulligan in the starring role is probably a little older than the character she's playing, but that fits well, as she has to be a sardonic would-be sophisticate in the body of a bright-eyed, babyfaced schoolgirl. English life in 1962 is perfectly recaptured: streets empty of parked cars, with demographic changes and slum landlords in the background. What really brings out how times have changed is when we see a major collectable work of art selling at auction for little more than £200, which was an average annual wage at the time. Alfred Molina as the all too impressionable Dad gave a performance to die for, although it was Emma Thompson as the headmistress who got the best line in the whole drama. The tiny audience at the local preview filled the room with hoots of horrified laughter. But to begin: young Jenny becomes seduced by a much older David, the convincingly oily Peter Sarsgaard. Before this, she was trying to excel in her life by sticking at school to get into Oxford University. Her parents, living through her as parents often do, are also seduced by the rascally David as Jenny turns her back on all thoughts of the academic life. After an unspeakably romantic visit to Paris she gradually comes to see the other side of the coin. It's as much a rake's progress as it is a young girl's loss of innocence.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The young Carey Mulligan is sprightly and charming and does look a bit
like Audrey Hepburn in this period drama about a bright, pretty
16-year-old suburban London schoolgirl who with a show of reserve gives
in to the seduction, cultural and sexual, of David Goldman (Peter
Sarsgaard), a thirty-something man of dubious intent and questionable
livelihood. He's a smiling gangster, really, though the storytelling
shows some skill in revealing the ugliness only in little gradual bits
until bam! Comes the big shocker. Not that, by then, it's much of a
David rescues Jenny (Ms. Mulligan) and her cello from a heavy downpour -- already his sleek purple Bristol car is a strong hint of his subtle mixture of poshness and sleaze -- and before she can say "I'm a virgin" he's taking her to classical concerts, auctions of Burne-Jones paintings, and jazz clubs with free-flowing champagne. With them are David's cohort and "business partner" Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Danny's dumb blonde girlfriend Fanny (Rosamund Pike). Danny's sleeker and more handsome than David and where he lives is packed with handsome artworks. We don't see where David lives, and when we do, we find out why.
Helen, who's never read a book, let alone Camus, exists to set off Jenny's intelligence and would-be sophistication. Jenny listens to Juliette Greco's smoky chansons, gratuitously spouts French, quotes the French existentialist, and dreams of Paris -- anything to escape this dull country (which has not begun to swing yet, since its only 1961). She's not so good at Latin, but at her girl's school her literature teacher Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams) appreciates her and wants passionately for her to go to "read English" at Oxford, a phrase the film explains so insistently you'd think academic British were a completely foreign language too.
What's a bit hard to believe in this otherwise routine tale, based on a memoir by writer Lynn Barber and turned into an easy-to digest screenplay by Nick Hornby, is the way Jenny's parents go along with the idea of David, this mysterious and oily older man, taking their college-prep daughter off to fancy watering places unchaperoned; he tells a string of lies to soften them up, some of them unbelievably crude, like his remark when first introduced to Jenny's mom, "You didn't tell me you had a sister." This compliance is justified by the fact that for her mother Marjorie (Cara Seymour) and timid but bumptuous dad Jack (Alfred Molina), marriage to a man with money, which David evidently has, wherever it comes from, is as good as going to university, maybe better. In any case, Jenny doesn't keep any of what's going on a secret; in fact she boasts of it to her classmates, and the teachers know too. The only sign that all morals haven't been relaxed yet is the headmistress (a wasted Emma Thompson), who sees Jenny as disqualifying herself for Oxford, the school, or respectable life.
Carey Mulligan blooms before our eyes in this movie, and its worth watching for that. There's a squirmy pleasure in observing her scenes with Peter Sarsgaard, and David is a good role for him. This is a character who is always acting so if Sarsgaard never seems natural that well fits the part. The whole trouble with 'An Education' is that everybody gets off too easy. David, whose declared Jewishness almost seems like evil type-casting, is a thoroughly despicable person when we really get to know him: how come he just gets to slither away? Jenny never suffers any lasting ill effects of her misbehavior even though everybody knows about it. Conflicting morals in early Sixties England are never a hardship for her or well dramatized in Hornby's simplistic plot. She's never confused, and it all turns out just fine. Good for her, but it leaves one with a queasy feeling not only because of the reptilian behavior of the boyfriend but because consequences are simply ignored, unlike in the much more hardscrabble film about a young girl's virginity actually made in 1961, Tony Richardson's fine 'A Taste of Honey' (written by Shelagh Delaney). How can Jenny be a heroine, if she has no real challenges to face? This doesn't feel like 1961 London, after all. It's just another modern take on a sassy young woman's premature liberation.
This beautifully observed film is anchored by a series of performances
acted with perfect pitch by its stars and supporting cast, led by the
remarkable Carey Mulligan, and a truly extraordinary script by Nick
Hornby. The coming of age plot is, perhaps, a little formulaic but that
really takes second place to a series of wonderfully engaging
characters who surround Ms. Mulligan's 16/17 year-old Jenny as she
falls a little to hard for the appealing (and older) rogue played by
One annoying little piece of trivium. The University of Oxford does not now and did not in 1962 admit undergraduates. Undergraduates are admitted by individual colleges at the university. So the letter that Jenny receives in which we learn whether she was accepted for a place would have come from a college and not the university as a whole.
And one amusing detail: Rosamund Pike who plays Dominic Cooper's decidedly non-academic blonde girlfriend actually attended Wadham College, Oxford! Takes an Oxford alum to play a dumb blonde, I suppose.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
'An Education' is a film rife with one implausible character after
another. For starters, when we're introduced to the protagonist, high
school student Jenny, she seems way too sophisticated for a 16 year
old. The main problem is that Carey Mulligan, who plays Jenny, is 24
years old in real life. Why didn't they cast a teenager?
Then there's the problem of the girl's father, Jack. At first he appears extremely petulant, a caricature of the pushy parent who wants their child to succeed at any cost. With his insistence that Jenny study night and day in order to get into Oxford, we're first led to believe that he's the film's antagonist. But soon when con-artist David appears on the scene, Jack is suddenly reduced to unprincipled buffoon. I say buffoon because he's so easily taken in by David's schemethat David is actually an Oxford alumnus and knows famous Oxford professor/author C.S Lewis. If this was a real character, wouldn't have Jack made a few simple inquiries to determine whether David was telling the truth or not?
In very simplistic fashion, the implication here is Jenny's sudden embrace of a life of crime is due to Jack's lack of principles. David basically buys Jack's acquiescence in allowing Jenny's trips away from home and ultimately accepting the idea of Jenny and David tying the knot. Somehow all this so easily rubs off on impressionable Jenny. The gutless father figure is nothing newjust think of Jim Backus strutting around in an apron in 'Rebel without a cause'.
Perhaps the moment I found to be the most incredulous was Jenny's sudden transformation from earnest student to unsavory bad girl. Even with the father acting the way he did, would she have so suddenly embraced David once she discovers that he's a con artist? I would think that a normal teenager would have been very alarmed that she was now in the company of a bunch of criminals and fear would have entered into the equation. But what was Jenny's reaction? A mild protest and then David sweeps her off her feet.
David was disappointing in that he was such a tame sociopath. What are his crimes? Well, he steals an antique map from a house that's up for sale and arranges for minorities to move into apartment buildings, scaring elderly tenants, and then buying the apartments from them when they decide to leave, at cut-rate prices. Oh yes, he also cheats on his wife. Equally disappointing is the couple he hangs out withexcept for one scene where there is a confrontation with Jenny, they really have little to do.
Every melodrama needs a villain and that is of course the headmistress of the school Jenny attends. After she finds out David is Jewish, she blurts out that the Jews "killed our Lord". Not only is she depicted as a vile anti-Semite but she cruelly rejects Jenny's request to be reinstated. Only Jenny's kindly teacher is willing to give her encouragement.
If you think about it, everyone seems to get a 'pass' in this movie except for the headmistress. Even David, despite his philandering ways, is not such a bad guy and is not truly held accountable for his amorality precisely because he is such a charming character (the film's scenarists imply that he too is a 'victim' of his environment).
There is nothing subtle about 'An Education'. It's an old-fashioned morality play where the good guys (educated professionals) triumph over shiftless petty criminals who hang out at such unsavory venues as dog tracks and seedy nightclubs. Everything is tied up in a nice ribbon at the end when both Jenny and her father repent and Jenny is miraculously accepted into Oxford.
'An Education' is a tawdry little tale that has already garnered a good share of undeserved accolades. It does boast a nice recreation of early 60s London along with a brooding score but in terms of psychological insight and depth of character, it totally lacks any kind of aesthetic credibility.
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