Review Of An Education:
“An Education” is a coming-of-age story set in 1960s London. The screenplay, written by Nick Hornby of “High Fidelity” and “About A Boy” fame, features his trademark clever dialogue and unconventional characters, aiming to inject levity into what could otherwise be the age-old school versus fun movie dilemma.
The main character, Jenny — played with a disarming charm by Carey Mulligan — is 16-years-old. She is intelligent, attractive and witty — think a ‘60s Rory from “Gilmore Girls.” She plays the cello, loves all things French and aspires to walk the hallowed halls of Oxford. Her parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) are not your typical overachieving parents — in fact, Molina’s performance especially shines in the film.
While the entire family is bent on doing everything to get Jenny into her dream school, they are not the career-obsessed tormentors a la “Dead Poets Society.” Their droll humor and cheeky exchanges with their daughter make for some of the most entertaining scenes in the movie.
In one particularly amusing scene, Jenny’s father explains to her that Oxford wants “joiner-inners” and gives a hilarious analysis of one of her after-school activities and what the purpose of a hobby is in terms of college applications.
The banter between Jenny and her parents shows them to be, well — cool, which is yet another novelty in the coming-of-age film genre. It is precisely this coolness that introduces the conflict of why her parents, just like Jenny, fall for the ruses of a charming older man, twice Jenny’s age, David, played by Peter Sarsgaard.
Sarsgaard does an incredible job, portraying his character as a mixture of a disturbing borderline sexual predator and charming but thoroughly confused rake.
“An Education” raises a lot of class issues; David is able to charm Jenny only because he is able to take her on whirlwind trips to Paris, fancy restaurants and chic jazz clubs. Middle class Jenny bemoans that she has never had any fun and writes off her pre-David life as boring.
Yet there are plenty of warning signs that David is a conman, albeit a very charming one. This begs the question of why Jenny chooses to ignore what is right in front of her; after all, she is too clever and wise for such things. It is precisely this plot element that seems to be a stretch, yet our belief in it is pivotal. To loosely dismiss it all as “young love” and the folly of youth is almost too easy. Maybe it is precisely the glamour and wealth that makes Jenny and her parents go along with David’s elaborate web of lies.
One of the more poignant moments in the movie comes when Jenny demands to know why her dad, who is the old, wise and ever protective father, did not foresee the fallout. As she says, “Silly schoolgirls are always getting seduced by glamorous old men,” but that should not have been the case with her parents.
Therein lies one of the greater strengths of this movie — portraying the few options open to women in the 1960s. It seems that Jenny’s life paths appear to be limited to old-maidish schoolmarm or wife of a well-to-do man. In one exchange with her parents, Jenny sarcastically points out that apparently, education is merely an “expensive alternative to a dinner dance” and an end only in its enabling of one to become an educated housewife.
Ultimately, “An Education” asks which is more valuable: the school of life or formal education. The two are not evenly matched, however — David and his coterie are clearly not of ingénue Jenny’s ilk. As he says, “We are not clever like you.” They are, however, able to create their ridiculously fun and adventurous life precisely because of their questionably attained means, thus making the fun versus school dilemma not all that even.
Jenny’s English teacher asks her, “You can do anything, Jenny, you’re clever and pretty. Is your boyfriend interested in the clever Jenny?” The resounding “no” makes the end of the movie fairly predictable. Nevertheless, the film has enough idiosyncratic and enjoyable elements to make it worth seeing if one can suspend disbelief in some of the more far-fetched plot developments.