Saturday, February 20, 2010

Film Review: An Education

Movie poster courtesy of Wikimedia

I apologize for no post yesterday, but I lost internet connectivity. Not sure why. Oddly, my internet is bundled with cable and telephone, and the household land-line was also non-functional. Cable TV held up, though, so we were able to tune in the Olympics!

The film "An Education" is actually a film adaptation of a memoir by Lynn Barber. Barber had originally penned an article that then led to the memoir. However, she did not write the screenplay, but rather turned that over to veteran author/screenplay writer Nick Hornby. Barber actually had some degree of approval over the screenplay and has been pleased with Hornby's work.

In postwar, Cold-War era suburban London, young, pretty Jenny Mellor (Carey Mulligan) lives with her parents. Her father (played by a particularly jowly, toothy Alfred Molina) goes out of his way to impress upon her the importance of studying and cultivating very particular hobbies to assist her in attaining the family goal of getting Jenny admitted to a college in Oxford. Her passions, French and jazz, are largely discounted by her father as frivolous things that take her concentration away from what he views as really important. Her mother (Cara Seymour), an attractive woman, plays a rather tacit peacekeeper role.

One cold day, waiting for the bus in a rainstorm, Jenny and her cello are picked up by a handsome stranger a bit older (Peter Sarsgaard, managing to look a bit like the guy next door, but definitely not the boy next door). He assures Jenny his intentions are about keeping her cello dry, so she lets him load the cello case into the back seat, starts to walk alongside the car, a stunning burgundy roadster, and then as the weather turns worse, accepts his initial proposal she enter the car. Introducing himself as David, the man asks Jenny about her music, concerts, and demonstrates not only some knowledge of classical music, but of the local musicians who play it. Jenny is impressed, and the ride home is short, and she gets out, safely home with her cello and none the worse for wear.

The following Thursday, when departing to play in the concert, accompanied by her parents, Jenny discovers a stunning arrangement of flowers on the front steps, with a card addressed to her. They're from David. Her parents, unaware of who David may be, show concern, but hurry off with their daughter for the concert. The next day, out with her friends, the 16 year-old surburbanite spies David and walks up to thank him. He asks if she's busy on Friday, and suggests they attend a classical music concert in London's West End together with a couple of his friends, Danny and Helen. Excited by the prospect, but grounded in reality, Jenny informs David it's unlikely her parents will consent, especially after David suggests they have supper after the concert. With her schoolgirl friends giggling in the background, David tells her not to worry, he'll handle her parents, and if they don't consent, he'll simply give her two concert tickets and she can attend with one of them.

Naturally, Jenny's father goes ballistic upon hearing this and says Jenny will have to attend the concert with him--until his wife informs him of the location, which he doesn't want to have to visit, claiming it's too far. David arrives at the appointed hour, and does everything short of charming the birds out of the trees. Jenny's parents, deeming David jovial and trustworthy, permit him to take Jenny to the concert and to supper afterwards with his "aunt Helen". Meeting Danny and Helen at the concert hall, Jenny is struck by how sophisticated David's friends appear. Helen in particular (Rosamund Pike looking incredibly like a young Catherine Deneuve) is a source of delight for Jenny, as she's clothed in a beautiful dress, a matching white stole and white opera gloves. Jenny overestimates her new acquaintance's intellectual capabilities, though, and when she begins speaking French to Helen, Helen is very evidently lost. After the concert, the two couples repair to a supper club, where they smoke cigarettes, drink champagne cocktails and listen to a singer (Beth Rowley, dressed and coiffed in a manner that I can only describe as a cross between Marilyn Monroe and a Barbie doll) warbling jazz tunes. All this is heady for Jenny, whose peers are her schoolgirl pals and a would-be teen suitor Graham, who is as socially awkward as the day is long, and who may be out of his league intellectually with Jenny.

At school, Jenny finds herself subjected to teasing by the other girls about her romance with "an older man". A good student, she struggles with Latin, and her father and teacher, Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams, who had to be "uglied up" considerably for this role) tell her unless her Latin grades improve, she surely won't be Oxford-bound. All the talk of Jenny's boyfriend circulates through school, and this causes enough concern for the headmistress (Emma Thompson, who somehow manages to convey just the right mixture of the contradictory elements of stylish and matronly) to lecture Jenny on the morality code for the all-girl student body.

David, however, and the alluring, culturally-rich world he lives in, beckon Jenny to a life beyond the Latin translations. Under Helen's tutelage, Jenny learns how to stop dressing like a schoolgirl, and to style her hair and wear make-up in a more contemporary, worldly manner. Together the two couples manage to steal away for a weekend in Oxford, although Jenny insists she will remain a virgin until her 17th birthday. She and David "put one over" on her parents to get their permission for the trip, with David lying, and Jenny corroborating that David's trip is a visit to his alma mater to see his old professor, the esteemed author C.S. Lewis. Sharing a room and a bed, Jenny does keep her word to herself and doesn't have a sexual relationship with David. On the way back to London, however, Jenny sees David and Danny make off with an antique map from an "open house" home, and jaded, she decides to break the relationship off. David placates her, literally sweeping her off her feet and dancing with her in the streets of London, however, and wins her back.

Appearing unexpectedly at Jenny's house for her birthday, and literally bearing more presents than he can carry all at once, David explains to Jenny's parents he'd like them all to take a trip the following weekend to celebrate Jenny's birthday in Paris. Her father objects, stating he'd not enjoy Paris, and David says that given Jenny's passions, the trip would be a good way to show her what a bunch of nonsense French culture is. By now Jenny's parents trust David so much, they permit Jenny and David to take the trip alone together. The couple are enthralled with each other and Paris, and enjoy les bookinistes, the steps of Montmartre, and a picnic dinner on the banks of the Seine, among the many vistas of the city.

Everything appears idyllic. Of course, this means it isn't. Noticing the interest Danny appears to be taking in Jenny, David becomes protective and jealous. He proposes to Jenny, delving into the trunk of his car in a futile effort to find a stolen ring. Not knowing whether to accept, Jenny discusses the matter with her parents. Because they, too, have become so smitten with the charming David, they tell Jenny they'll give their consent. This causes Jenny to question why they'd so suddenly stop encouraging her hard work in school and give in to the prospect of their daughter enjoying an "easy life" with a successful businessman.

Jenny discovers David isn't who he says he is, and confronts him about it on the night they're to celebrate their engagement by taking her parents out to dinner. Jenny even comes to the creepy conclusion that David may have been stalking her when he picked her up in the rain.

Despite the fact Jenny wallows in depression and blames her parents for not taking a full and careful interest in her suitor, Jenny eventually realizes she, too, has failed herself. She defines a new goal for herself, and sets about finding help to achieve that goal. The first person she approaches for assistance rejects her, but the second helps her find her path and ultimately become a success.

The costumes really capture the era. Gentlemen are in nice overcoats, suits and ties. The ladies are, at turns, in tweed suits, argyle sweaters, and chic sheath dresses with leopard-skin prints appearing here and there in coats and hats. The soundtrack is wonderful, and prominently features selections from Beth Rowley and Juliette Greco. In Paris, scenes are perfect for the segment of the film dealing with the giddy atmosphere of love, sex and infatuation.

One of the key scenes in the film features Alfred Molina, earnest and sincere as Jenny's father, apologizing to her on the other side of her bedroom door, for being so blindly trusting of David and all he seemed to offer, and not being more carefully paternal. As an added touch, he leaves Jenny a cup of tea and some biscuits, which is just what a loving British dad would do. All of the scenes with Emma Thompson are powerful vehicles not just for Thompson's own considerable acting skills, but for Mulligan's, too. The dialogue in these scenes is amazing, particularly when Jenny examines the lives of the women who are supposed to be her academic role models, but she observes that in early 1960's London, even with an education, their lives seem to be less than perfectly fulfilling. She also challenges Thompson to explain, as an educator, what the specific value of an education is to young women of the era.

By the end of the film, we see and hear a much humbler Jenny, achieving her goal and observing she's older but doesn't feel wise. The fact of the matter is that she actually is, but the price she's paid is the loss of her innocence. The concept of "growing pains" applies to emotional wounds, too.


  1. We are planning to see this, it will be in the cinema soon.
    I like everyone in the movie and London also , so what is there not to like ?
    Thank you !

  2. I read that Carey Mulligan won Best Actress at the BAFTA last night !

  3. I was dying to see this movie when it first came out. Didn't get a chance, but will definitely see it when it's out on dvd.

    Excellent review Kathy! Makes me really regret not seeing it in theaters.

    Lulu Letty