Review: Memoir adapation a first-grade ‘Education’
November 19, 2009
“An Education” is set in 1961 in England. The country is in a transitional phase – still shedding the last of the deprivations of the post-World War II years, but also seeing the first signs of the coming revolution. Fashions are becoming bolder; the youth population is hungering for a little fun, developing a sassy attitude, learning to spoil themselves with cars and nights out in the clubs.
But the revolution isn’t happening fast enough for Jenny. A smart, precocious, cute 16-year-old, Jenny has awakened to the fact that there’s more happening in the world beyond her middle-class London neighborhood.
The suffocation comes at school – an all-girl’s academy of buttoned-up blouses and an education in the classics, where a student’s dreams range as far as being a school teacher, or, for the especially worldly, perhaps a member of the civil service. And it comes at home in the form of Jenny’s comically practical father, Jack, who simultaneously disdains Jenny’s at-home cello playing (who needs a luxury like music?) but insists that she maintain her membership in the school orchestra (a necessary resume item if she wants to get into Oxford).
Most of Jenny’s waking dreams are in French – French songs, French films, the French language, and the city of Paris just 300 miles away. But how can she even think about getting to Paris when her dad can’t even imagine a cross-town trip to the West End?
So when fun-loving, 30-ish, Jewish David drives up in a sports car and offers a ride away from all that numbing tranquility, Jenny is ripe for plucking. Jenny can see that David is a rogue, but that’s so easy to ignore as she is whisked from grand apartments to art auctions to jazz clubs to the racetrack. And yes, to Paris. In David, she has found a blessed shortcut to exactly the life she’s wanted.
Danish director Lone Scherfig, adapting a memoir by Lynn Barber, works in all contrasts in “An Education.” Each character exists to stand in opposition to another. Free-spending, risk-taking David is the anti-Jack. Innocent, awkward Graham, who has a schoolboy crush on Jenny, is the opposite of David. London: confining and predictable; Paris: dreamy and open. Latin: dead; French: romantic.
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Even Jenny’s educators come in contrasting pairs: Her English literature teacher Miss Stubbs is a closet bohemian who cares enormously about Jenny, while the headmistress is a stuffy bat who cares enormously about proper appearances.
Jenny, too, has her opposing number in Helen. The girlfriend of David’s best friend, Helen is blonde and pretty and empty. Jenny’s into the lifestyle for what it brings: concerts, paintings, opportunities to discuss them with knowledgeable people. For Helen, it’s a joy-ride, with the subtler pleasures of her privileged existence passing happily over her head.
Bog yourself down in this lineup of character types, and “An Education” can seem overly calculated. Likewise, the general contours of the plot can be less than enlightening. The title itself warns that Jenny is going to be educated, and we know that her lessons will come in the classroom that she has chosen.
But the film seduces us, easily and completely. The acting is magnificent. The routinely masterful Peter Sarsgaard gives David a complexity and richness. He’s a scoundrel and a coward, but also a gentleman when Jenny turns down his sexual advances. Alfred Molina is memorable as Jack, giving the clueless father figure a big dose of comedy and empathy. Carey Mulligan, as Jenny, is wise but ultimately vulnerable – the ideal combination of ingredients one needs in order to be educated.