An Education


Movie review by Greg Carlson

In “An Education,” Danish director and Dogme 95 contributor Lone Scherfig abandons the constricting limitations of the movement’s so-called “Vow of Chastity” for a traditional and straightforward treatment of the bildungsroman.  Featuring a confident central performance by the beguiling Carey Mulligan, the movie has little new to say about a bright young girl caught between the allure of a charming older suitor and the possibilities afforded by a first-class education, but it still merits consideration.  Nick Hornby’s efficient adaptation of journalist Lynn Barber’s “Granta” essay (later a memoir) snaps with plenty of intelligence and wit, even if some of the thornier quandaries of the story are unaddressed.

Mulligan plays Jenny, a superbly talented 16-year-old aspiring to Oxford who accepts a ride in David’s (Peter Sarsgaard) handsome maroon Bristol one rainy afternoon.  With broad strokes that echo many sentiments expressed in the Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” David seduces both Jenny and her parents – though not necessarily in that order.  Despite being more than twice Jenny’s age, David speaks with a silver tongue; he may be too good to be true, but Jenny quickly concludes that her life is more intriguing with David in it.  Even when she glimpses the darker aspects of his modus operandi, he preys on the very combination of Jenny’s precocious intellect and her naïve openness by telling her bluntly about some of the unsavory things he does to make a living.

Given the film’s early 1960s setting and the cautious, by-the-book attitude of Jenny’s father – warmly played by the endlessly compelling Alfred Molina – some viewers will no doubt find puzzling the movie’s liberal posture regarding teen sexuality, as well as the breezy acceptance of David by Jenny’s parents.  The film takes pains to raise the notion that Jenny’s father views marriage as a legitimate alternative to the difficulties of paying for college, but the ease with which Jenny manages to secure permission for weekend getaways might cause some parents’ hearts to skip a few beats.

Almost more troubling is Jenny’s unwillingness to scrutinize David more closely once cracks begin to show in his not so carefully cultivated persona.  Scherfig might well have intended the movie’s point of view to be so thoroughly filtered through Jenny’s subjective experience – Mulligan is hardly ever offscreen – that viewers see everything her way, but the character is far too smart not to pose tougher questions to David before the doomed moment of her undesired epiphany, which stands as one of the movie’s most self-conscious and least effective scenes.

Scherfig appears to sense some of the pitfalls of the coming of age story, and despite the inevitable revelations and recriminations (protagonist self-directed and otherwise) demanded by the genre, “An Education” remains true to the expanding outlook of its heroine.  Naysayers will deride several of the characterizations as broad and even cartoonish, but Olivia Williams, as Jenny’s wise teacher, quells much of that avenue of criticism.  The movie’s somewhat incongruous, late-stage moralizing and tidy wrapping up of loose ends belongs to another film, but Mulligan’s summery presence elevates “An Education” beyond the strictly conventional.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/23/09.

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