An Education – Movie Review

As the school bell rings the start of another day, let me say this – AN EDUCATION is some kind of education!

Jenny is your average 16 year old schoolgirl.  Attending a private school in the London suburb of Twickenham, her father pushes her to be the best, get those straight “A’s”, study, study, study, earn that scholarship to Oxford.  And after all, you need to go to college to find a husband. (I know, I know.  What do you expect in 1961?)  Between classes all day and cello practice every afternoon compounded with extra Latin homework every night (Cogito Ergo Sum), Jenny is left little time for any social life.  Yet, she still finds time to dream of the day she leaves home, venturing out into a world filled with excitement and adventure.  Sprawled on her bedroom floor singing along to the sounds of Parisian singer Juliette Greco, Jenny’s teenage angst is blossoming.

Then one rainy day, Jenny’s wish for excitement and adventure is prematurely answered when a stranger named David, driving a fancy Bristol roadster, takes pity on this poor girl toting a cello walking in the rain.  Looking more like a drowned rat than a teenager, Jenny is nevertheless thankful, after a little verbal tet-e-tet, that David pulls over and offers her a ride.  Immediately, her eyes light up as David talks about music, himself being a devotee of classical and a frequent concert goer.  Despite David’s 30-something age, the spark between them is evident and obvious. So it comes as no surprise when David invites Jenny to a concert and then shows up at her door some days later to pick her up.

But it’s not too easy to leave the iron fist of your father when you are 16 and a man 14+ years your senior shows up to whisk you away to a concert in the city.   But we quickly witness first hand that David’s talents lie beyond his smooth appearance, wordly and culture knowledge and fancy cars.  He’s a very smooth talker and soon convinces Dad to let Jenny accompany him with his “elder” Aunt Helen to the concert.  How can Dad say no to a cultural experience like that which will only enhance Jenny’s college application?

Needless to say, one thing leads to another and it’s not long before David and Jenny are out wining and dining (and doing quite a few other things, if you know what I mean, one involving a banana; after all, this film is called “An Education”)  along with David’s friends Danny and Helen.   Wearing the finest hippest fashions of the day, travelling to Paris for her 17th birthday, travelling to Oxford, this is the life Jenny has dreamt.  Showing Jenny the time of her life, as their relationship deepens, Jenny’s old life seems to fade away.  Her schoolwork suffers.  Her old friends fall by the wayside.  And her parents become unwitting, but willing, participants in what turns into a cat and mouse game orchestrated by David.

The minute I knew Peter Sarsgaard was in the film, my heart leapt like a schoolgirl, knowing that whatever character he played would have multiple personas, playing to both the dark and light of the human psyche. I was not disappointed. In his patented style, as David, Sarsgaard trips the light fantastic as a happy-go-lucky well to do debonair bachelor, extremely handsome guy, who sweeps a 16 year old schoolgirl off her feet, educating her in the ways of the world. But, then that dark side rears its ugly head and we slowly begin to see what lurks beneath that handsomely boyish grin – deceit, fraud, conniving.  He is simply delicious. What makes his performance so enjoyable is that David has no remorse. Ever. For anything. He has no conscience and it makes the character fascinating to watch. Sarsgaard is masterful at roles like this. 

Which leads me to Carey Mulligan.   I fell in love with her performance and the character of Jenny.   It is impossible not to love her.  She is wonderful. Engaging. Likeable. Fun.  Mulligan’s facial expressiveness is key to the entire character of Jenny. She brings an indescribable attitude to the role. Initially, a forced maturity like a little girl playing dress up trying to act older than she really is, but somewhere along the way, she eases into adulthood and slips into the nouveau riche world of elegance, class and high rollers, like sliding into a silk slip at bedtime.  Mulligan has a naturalness to her that is never forced or strained. A joy to watch. She truly brings Jenny 360 degrees.  Mulligan has a very fresh opinion on performances and differentiating between Carey Mulligan the actress and a character played by Carey Mulligan, believing that “I don’t think you can have responsibility for what your character does.  That’s fiction.”, an important outlook given Jenny’s actions.

I have to talk about Alfred Molina as Jenny’s father Jack. Definitely my personal favorite performance of his out of his entire career.   As good as he was in last year’s “Nothing Like the Holidays”, here, as Jack, he is hysterical!  Simply  wonderful to watch. His engagements with Sarsgaard are entertaining and at times, electrifying, to watch as he has his head in the sand and the wool pulled over his eyes. And at the crux of it all, he is as funny as a rubber crutch. Particularly significant for probably everyone reading this is the immortal dad speech about “money trees in the backyard.”  I could have sworn it was my own father was standing there yelling at me! The naivete that Molina brings to Jack is priceless. On the flip side though, it makes you wonder about Jack as a father given that he is encouraging his 16 year old daughter to be with this much older man in the hopes she does marry him and then save dear old dad college tuition. But the way Molina plays the part, you don’t hate him for thinking that, because so much of him comes across as simple and practical and with a depression era mindset. And that mindset doesn’t allow for one to believe in deception and trickery and does at heart want what’s best for his children…and in Jenny’s case, that she will have a comfortable life with David and dad saves money, then that’s all the better.   A brilliant performance.

Dominic Cooper’s Danny is a very under-utilized character in this film, yet to watch him, Cooper brings great depth and intrigue that ratchets up the subterfuge going on throughout.  Although Danny is dating Helen, the chemistry between Cooper and Mulligan is so intense and the characters so well written that a looming presence throughout the film revolves around the potential for, or unseen relationship between, Jenny and Dominic.  Cooper walks a very line with his performance that simultaneously leads you down two paths of possibilities.

As Helen, Rosamund Pike embodies beauty and the carefree hip attitude of the 60’s which is refreshing to watch.  She also serves as a comic relief, playing the dumb blonde persona to perfection.   Olivia Williams is another excellent bit of casting.  As Jenny’s teacher, Miss Stubbs, Williams brings a sense of loss and loneliness to the character, adding to the feeling that Stubbs is holding back from engaging with her students, yet still giving a sense of longing as she wishes she was the girl going to Paris with an older man. Her mannerisms, as with Mulligan’s, are very telling of the character and add much to the film.   And Emma Thompson. The name says it all. Excellence personified even with a small, but pivotal part.

Written by Nick Hornby based on Lynn Barber’s memoirs, the story as a whole is strong and fluid.  The principal characters are dynamic and engaging, so much so that I am actually curious as to what happened to all of them once the film ended.   (And after reading Lynn Berber’s memoirs I now know.)  Relationships well written and fleshed out with just a few holes with scenarios going unanswered and certain characters just “disappearing” never to be seen again.  And be it due to the actual events of Lynn Barber’s life, or merely an oversight in structure, the loose ends of the relationship between Danny, Helen and Jenny and Helen – especially Danny and Jenny given the smoldering lustful looks Danny kept giving Jenny throughout their adventures – stick out like a sore thumb.  What I appreciate most about Hornby’s script is the truth that it conveys.  The coming of age, the winsomeness and angst of being a teenager, the changing times of the early 60’s, the elan that change gave to our lives, but keeping the story based in the reality of hard work, academics and brains over beauty.  Hornby also has a very light hand with the laughs and lets situations propel the laughter without being forced.   I have always enjoyed Hornby’s works and with AN EDUCATION, he is further solidified as a writer whose film’s I will always see for the mere fact he has written them.

Lone Scherfig, an established and well known director in Denmark, now makes her mark on American film audiences.  Coming in as a replacement for Beebon Kidron who directed “Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason”, Scherfig is described by Sarsgaard as “smooth”.  No shrinking violet, she is strong in her point of view and attention to detail which, in a film like this, relies so heavily on detail as part of the story.  Her work ethic is meticulous and unfettered as is this film.  And she is not easily rattled.  A director with a keen eye, Scherfig balances the emotional pallette, and particularly the tender moments with comedy, attributing it to “Some in the script. Some comes from the acting or a prop or situation and then some in the script that I never saw.  But you definitely get something keeping a good atmosphere on set.”   For her, “if the actors relax they tend to become funnier.  Nobody can crack a good joke if you’re not comfortable.”  All of her actors agree, they were more than comfortable on set.  And according to Cooper and Sarsgaard much of that comfort is due to Rosamund Pike, “the party coordinator.”

From a production standpoint, start with the production design and costuming which is only enhanced by the exquisite cinematography of one of my faves, John de Borman who wowed us with his work in “Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day.”  Superb with period pieces and working with decor, here, Borman’s lighting and lensing – in multiple and varied interiors and exteriors, including Oxford and Paris – showcases Andrew McAlpine’s production design.   Pay close attention to the color palettes, particularly that in Jenny’s home and Danny’s apartment – the one rich in color and intensity, the other rich in look and style, and both very telling.   Borman and McAlpine both get an A+ in my book!  But for the ladies, look no further than Odile Mireaux’s costuming – particularly the adult cocktail designs for Jenny and Helen. Stunning, stunning creations.  All either vintage or handmade for the production from vintage fabrics which Mireaux collects.  The glamourous looks are a lovely balance to Jenny’s daily school uniforms which, by the way, actually have some style to them.  And here’s a little factoid for you, a black sequined cocktail dress is actually a copy of a Barbie doll dress that Lone Scherfig had.

Fun and funny, entertaining and extremely enjoyable, dramatic, comedic, a story of coming of age, a changing time,  fathers and daughters, growing up and going away,  Lone Scherfig and her cast and crew give us all AN EDUCATION.  Go straight to the head of the class with AN EDUCATION!

Jenny – Carey Mulligan

David – Peter Sarsgaard

Danny – Dominic Cooper

Helen – Rosamund Pike

Jack – Alfred Molina

Directed by Lone Scherfig.  Written by Nick Hornby based on the memoirs of Lynn Barber.


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