Review: An Education, 2009, dir. Lone Scherfig

A critical darling of 2009, Lone Scherfig’s An Education approaches its subject matter– the blossoming relationship shared by Carey Mulligan’s not-yet-of-age schoolgirl and Peter Sarsgaard’s cultured and much older gentleman– with such a deft hand as to negate any potential for casting a lecherous taint upon the story. By any account, this should be treated as no small feat; to make David Goldman utterly void of any trace of salaciousness requires  great thought and skill in the hands of the screenwriter (Nick Hornby, turning his talents from novels to scripts, wrote the screenplay based off of Lynn Barber’s autobiography); what develops between Sarsgaard and Mulligan never at any point feels uncomfortable or lewd and instead at the start reads as surprisingly tender and sweet.

But most of all, this task is the responsibility of the actors. Hornby’s words can only do so much; the rest is up to Mulligan and Sarsgaard, and both deliver in spades. While the real treasure here is Mulligan– make no mistake, in watching An Education one watches the birth of an incredible talent– praise must also be accorded to Sarsgaard, who has more to do with keeping David from being a repulsive libertine than his co-star. Together, their exquisite performances elevate a good if passable film into the realms of the phenomenal, making An Education a truly must-see picture.

It’s 1961, and fiercely intelligent Jenny Mellor (Mulligan) is moving forward into the next stage of her life with reluctance. Her parents, keenly opinionated Jack (Alfred Molina, superbly commanding) and demure Marjorie (Cara Seymour), are pushing her towards an academic future at Oxford and while the 16-year-old acquiesces it’s plain to see that she has her doubts about whether she wants the life they’re planning for her. Enter David, sophisticated, witty, magnetic; whisking her away to swank clubs and events, as well as Paris, he gives her a taste of a world she’s never experienced before and she becomes hooked as she simultaneously grows cynical regarding the purpose of her schooling.

An Education focuses primarily on Jenny’s coming-of-age; this is about her journey through girlhood on her way towards becoming an adult. But it also seems to be about gender roles and domination, namely in how both Jack and David wrestle over Jenny in a sort of tug-of-war for her soul. Both attempt to push her in the directions that they deem to be best, with Jack admonishing his daughter to entrench herself in academia and David persuading her of the limitations of a formal education. It gets to the point where for a good portion of the story, Jenny feels like an observer in her own story; she doesn’t begin to make active choices in her own life until much later on in the progression of the plot. Underneath the film’s surface turf war between Jenny’s father and lover there’s a narrative about the plight of girls in Jenny’s position and from Jenny’s time: Life comes down to choosing between marriage and children, and an education (Hey! That’s the title of the film!) that itself only allows young women into the limited number of fields accessible to them– namely the civil service or teaching others like them and thus perpetuating the cycle.

More than shining a harsh light on the state of gender politics in 1960’s England, An Education zooms in on Mulligan, whose work here is the kind that makes a bad movie good and a good movie great. An Education, if stripped of its cast, could be considered something enjoyable if a bit slight; it may very well have received favorable but unexcited response in an alternate reality where the casting director didn’t make a half dozen (at least) inspired decisions. But fortunately that’s not the world we live in, and we’re all better for it. Mulligan is surrounded by veteran actors who she keeps pace with such aplomb as to make it look easy. Of course maintaining one’s stride amidst the likes of talents such as Molina, Sarsgaard, and Thompson is anything but a simple task, and at the end of the day it’s not at all surprising to read such effusive praise for Mulligan across the boards. She’s marvelous here, a modern incarnation of Audrey Hepburn (something I thought I was clever enough to pick up on myself, only to find that the comparison really is that obvious), enchanting and full of pluck. It’s impossible to avert your eyes from her when she’s on the screen; she has that sort of star quality that you want to watch over and over again, and in fact that you never want to stop watching. This is Mulligan’s defining moment as an actress; here’s hoping that she makes the most of the opportunity to forge a path towards an excellent and successful career.

As much as Mulligan constitutes 80% of the “why” for seeing An Education, the company she keeps deserves special mention as well. Alfred Molina manages to bring to the table both loving warmth and fatherly dominion as Mr. Mellor. Molina plays out the character’s internal clash flawlessly; Jack wants his child to flourish and enjoy a happy life, but he struggles endlessly in trying to understand what that actually entails. He has good intentions at heart but his vision for Jenny’s life is painfully narrow (again, education or marrying into wealth). Molina strikes a fine balance between Jack’s socially clueless side and his genuine affection for his daughter. And of course Sarsgaard could be applauded solely for crafting a believable character impelled by what we perceive to be a very real love for Jenny, rather than a licentious caricature, but his portrayal of David is quietly impressive outside of the conscious efforts made to counter the inherently uncomfortable nature of his connection to Jenny. There’s never a moment of doubt as to why Jenny is so taken by him, and that makes the destination of their arc together– which casts a fairly creepy sheen across the entire rest of the film– all the more devastating.

Finally, Olivia Williams and Emma Thompson both make minor but strong appearances as Jenny’s teacher and headmistress, respectively. Neither has very much to do, but their presences nonetheless carry enormous importance; whereas the male characters of the film campaign aggressively to exert influence over Jenny’s future, the women instead show a preference for which choice they think she should make without trying to wrest autonomy away from her.

In the end, An Education‘s strength stems largely from its cast. Pleasant, engaging, An Education becomes riveting and completely engrossing by virtue of the quality of acting. Built on a strong foundation in both Hornby’s script and Lone Scherfig’s direction, bolstered by John de Borman’s beautiful cinematography, the film blooms into memorability thanks to the elements provided by its players. If you take one thing away from An Education, it will almost surely be Mulligan’s sterling work– and maybe you need no more reason than that.

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6 thoughts on “Review: An Education, 2009, dir. Lone Scherfig

  1. Nicely written review Andrew, I thought this movie was pleasant enough coming-of-age movie and very well acted by the cast. I was a bit disappointed by the ending which sort of stated: “ok great, I had a life altering experience, now let’s go back to doing what I was doing at the beginning of the movie”. At the end of the day, It was a B for me.

    • I actually felt like the ending went in the only direction it could possibly have gone, though I didn’t really understand the point behind having Jenny block out her experiences with David or at least refuse to acknowledge them.

      If not for the cast, I think I may have felt like the movie was kind of slight. Maybe a bit of fluff. I likely would have enjoyed it but I doubt it would have left much of an impression. The acting makes the film, almost one hundred percent.

  2. Excellent review sir, I love this film very much (what do you mean about Jenny blocking out her experiences with David) and I’m glad I’ m not the only one who likes it. The cast definitely is the strongpoint, though.

    PS. Emma Thompson not Watson
    …and what did you think of Pike and Cooper?

    • Wow, I’m an idiot. Thanks for the correction.

      At the end, in the somewhat cheap voice-over, Jenny mentions that she lied to a boy about having been to Paris with David, as though that never happened. Maybe she’s not “blocking out” the experience but she certainly isn’t accepting that it happened. So that’s what I meant.

      Pike and Cooper were solid, but they weren’t among the performances that mattered most to me. Pike was pretty wonderful as such a sadly foolish but completely sweet character, but Cooper didn’t have a whole lot to do other than ominously warn of David’s eventual turn.

  3. I don’t know where Mulligan learned the facial expressions she uses in the movie, but they contain more emotion — complex, conflicted emotion — than pages and pages of dialogue. If a less talented actress had played the part, the movie could have been a disaster. But Mulligan plays Jenny not as a totally naive kid, and that makes all the difference.

    And many props to Peter Sarsgaard, one of the few actors who could make a grown man having a relationship with an underage teen seem sweet and not creepy.

    • I was pretty bowled over at Sarsgaard’s deft touches; this could easily have felt uncomfortable and creepy and wrong throughout and he’s largely the reason why it isn’t. And totally agreed about Mulligan. She brings so much wisdom and experience to the part that I can’t see any other actress nailing it like she did.

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