by HELEN GEIB
An Education, one of the best reviewed movies of 2009, has justly received critical raves for its performances. The praise typically begins by singling out the career breakthrough performance by a young English actress named Carey Mulligan as 17 year old Jenny, the aspirations-driven heroine of the story, before moving on to the ensemble supporting cast: Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour as Jenny’s parents; Peter Sarsgaard as David, the older man she allows to seduce her; Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike as the oddly matched couple they go around with; Olivia Williams as her favorite teacher, who has great hopes for her favorite pupil; and Emma Thompson as the unimaginative headmistress of her school.
The intelligent script by novelist Nick Hornby is adapted from Lynn Barber’s memoir and the film was directed by Danish director Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners, Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself). The film is set in 1961 London and environs, with side trips to Oxford and Paris, and benefits greatly from a convincing re-creation of the material culture of the period.
There are several possible approaches to the film, which can reasonably be considered as any of a coming of age story, sociocultural commentary, and romantic/family drama. For this review, I’m going to take as my guide the title and its multi-layered ironies.
The first meaning of “an education” starts with the dictionary definition: Jenny is receiving a good secondary education at a school where she works hard to succeed academically and aspires to higher education at an elite university. Jenny lives with her parents in the highly respectable London suburb of Twickenham where she attends a girls’ preparatory school. Her parents, especially her father, have upwardly mobile hopes for their very intelligent daughter. Their encouragement, the school’s curriculum and teaching quality, and Jenny’s innate scholastic aptitude make admission to Oxford a very real possibility. The value of a good education is perceived differently by different characters (financial security, intellectual inquiry, social respectability…), and figuring out what value education offers her is one of the things Jenny struggles with during the film.
The second meaning is the familiar one of an education in life, or as David would say (with an air of self-satisfaction), being educated in the school of hard knocks. David is about twenty years Jenny’s senior, a free spender, charming, and selfish. He offers worldliness, admiration, and experiences she craves: concerts, fine restaurants, travel, glamorous living, irresponsibility. Although she is not without her own measure of culpability in the affair, he is a rat and she is hurt by him. Dealing with the fallout forces her to mature, in some ways prematurely; the change is exemplified by a poignant scene when Jenny comes to understand emotionally, not just intellectually, that her teacher is a person like herself with an existence outside the classroom. Coming to terms with what she has discovered about herself is another part of Jenny’s education.
David puts a great deal of time, effort, and money into seducing Jenny; it’s more than simple sexual desire. Having her satisfies an unarticulated craving for intangibles: taste, class, intellect. Education- in and of itself and as a proxy for class in a highly stratified society- divides and attracts. This third meaning of “an education” plays out in expected and unexpected ways throughout the film. David knowingly exploits it in how he chooses to present himself to Jenny’s parents. It informs Jenny’s pseudo-friendships with David’s upper-crust business partner Danny and Danny’s kindly, stupid, happily content to be ignorant girlfriend Helen. In the teenager’s version of playing dress-up, Jenny assumes the presumed airs of a sophisticated woman of the world (mostly: smoking, speaking frankly about sex, sprinkling French phrases into her conversation) to mark herself as absolutely, definitely, in the ways that really matter, not from Twickenham.
3 1/2 stars
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The Express is a biopic that looks at cultural changes in the early 1960s from a very different perspective. For another fine film that wraps a coming-of-age story in an examination of culture clashes and socioeconomic aspirations, check out Sugar.