Thursday, December 17, 2009

An Education

"She was a young maiden in the full bloom of youth," or so could have started An Education, the movie based on the memoir of Lynn Barber. The story concerns 16-year-old Jenny, whose middle-class father controls her life tightly, forcing her to concentrate on education and building the appropriate resume to get into Oxford.

But Jenny finds herself the object of David's attention. David is a roguish 30-something of the sort of mysterious (but copious) means that seem to signal "gentleman" to the English. He's cultured, smooth and charming, and proceeds to seduce the family with his wiles.

What? Well, obviously he has to seduce the mother and father or they're not going to be letting their 16-year-old daughter go out with him. I mean, it's 1961 England, after all.

You know, as uptight as things were in England in 1961, I have a hard time imagining a stolid middle-class family today being cool with—well, let's be honest, the guy isn't even a young 30, the actor is 37!—sending their 16-year-old daughter out with an unknown man old enough to be her father.

And then sending her away for the weekend, even if it is to Oxford, and even if he has convinced them he's connected.

Forget about Paris.

But, like I said, this is a memoir, and if I'm going to believe that Cameron Crowe lost his virginity in foursome with three groupies while on the road with a rock band (Almost Live), I suppose I can believe this.

Actually, it's a testament to the movie's execution that this comes off far less creepy than it should. Indeed, the movie only works at all because the audience is also seduced by David. He keeps a respectful distance from Jenny, and she's ultimately in control of how their physical relationship progresses.

And as the cracks in David's veneer begin to show, the movie does a good job of rationalizing. In particular, the defenders of the traditional path—work hard, do lots of boring, irrelevant stuff so that you can go to a good school, so that you can then become a teacher and teach boring, irrelevant stuff—are particularly weak at defending it.

Her teacher, her principal, her father really can't explain why she should dedicate herself to study rather than run around with the roguish David and hang out in nightclubs, eat fine food, and explore Europe.

Beside the excellent handling by director Lone Scherfig, and nuanced performances by Peter Saarsgard (as David), and Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour (as mom and dad), the movie is largely powered by the charming Carey Mulligan. (She's 23, but like Ellen Page, she can play much younger convincingly.)

The actresses in this movie are especially strong, as they all seem to reflect the various choices available to the young Jenny. Mom is tired with an unextraordinary life, and we see both hints of danger and jealousy in Cara Seymour's performance. Rosamund Pike (of Doom and Pride and Prejudice) plays Helen, who is the paramour of David's partner in crime Danny, and in her we see—besides a shocking level of ignorance—wistfulness toward Jenny's naiveté, jealousy of her sparkling youth, and the kinship of one who knows the man she loves is not as noble a character as she might like.

Olivia Williams (late of "Dollhouse") plays Miss Stubbs, the teacher Jenny most highly respects (and ultimately gravely insults) as a buttoned-up disciplinarian, and Emma Thompson is the imperious and vengeful headmistress who sternly reminds Jenny that non-virgins are not allowed in her school. Heh.

Oh, and there's also Matthew Beard, who plays Jenny's age-appropriate suitor, Graham. He's awkward and unsophisticated and also sweet and sincere, but wholly unable to compete against the urbane David. In his few short scenes, he has to deal with going from a likely successful suitor to being snubbed mysteriously to realizing what he's up against.

Solid acting, solid writing, solid direction. Ultimately, though, I did find the whole exercise oddly Victorian and almost melodramatic. Will Jenny lose her virtue to the handsome rogue? Will her life be ruined? Will anyone care in five years, when the world so radically changes?

The Boy thought it could've been worse, but as remote as the whole thing felt to me—I could, at least, relate to the larger parental issues of making sure your kids know why they have to do things that aren't fun—it's ancient history to him.

Just as an addendum, Roger Ebert has put this on his top 10 list of mainstream movies of the year. I probably wouldn't put it in the top ten or on the mainstream list. Heh. (But Ebert's a contemporary so that might be part of the appeal for him.)


  1. I probably wouldn't put it in the top ten or on the mainstream list.

    I wished they had focused on Jenny pulling herself up by her bootstraps than her seduction. The whole movie just seemed somehow emotionally unsatisfying. Definitely not Oscar material.

  2. That's an interesting point.

    The movie would've been too long if they had done both, but if they had just done the bootstrap part, would they have been able to create sympathy for her?

  3. Just saw this last night. I thought the treatment of her "rehabilitation" after her fall was too cursory to be believable.

    The music was pretty good and period appropriate.


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