Eugene Weekly : Movies : 11.19.09


Defining Her Future
Carey Mulligan shines in an unsentimental film
by Molly Templeton

AN EDUCATION: Directed by Lone Scherfig. Screenplay by Nick Hornby, based on the memoir by Lynn Barber. Cinematography, John De Borman. Editor, Barney Pilling. Music, Paul Englishby. Starring Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Olivia Williams, Alfred Molina, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike and Cara Seymour. Sony Pictures Classics, 2009. PG-13. 95 minutes.

“Action is character,” says Jenny (Carey Mulligan), the 16-year-old center of An Education, expounding upon a lesson from English class and taking it in a direction it was never intended to go. “If we never did anything, we wouldn’t be anybody.”

Carey Mulligan (center) in An Education

Jenny’s life, when she says this, is full of doing things. Concerts, weekend trips, nights spent in jazz clubs, a morning auction — all on the arm of David Goodman (Peter Sarsgaard), who steps into her life when he offers Jenny a ride home from school in the pouring rain. It’s her cello he’s concerned about, he explains smoothly. David is in his mid-30s, a fairly charming, decent looking fellow whose world is a far cry from school and Latin homework. Jenny’s suburban life, until David, had one focal point, repeated endlessly by her father, Jack (Alfred Molina): getting into Oxford. 

An Education could be a lot of things: sad, off-putting, sentimental, maybe a little grotesque. No matter which way you slice it, it’s the story of a teen being seduced by a grown man. But the film — directed by Lone Scherfig and gracefully adapted by Nick Hornby from Lynn Barber’s memoir — is careful with its judgments and its indulgences, and sharply aware of the time period in which it takes place: 1961 England, in what Hornby has described as “post-war austerity Britain.” His script sticks closely to Jenny, valuing her perspective while showing us everyone else’s. Reactions to her relationship with David are mixed: Her schoolfriends are wildly impressed, her English teacher (a wonderful Olivia Williams) horrified, her parents — well, they too are taken in by David, an easy liar who always knows just what to say to quell their fears about sending their child off into the world with an adult. They seem to willingly forget that he’s not an adult who wants to chaperone their daughter, but one falling in love with her.

Jenny, to her credit and the film’s, isn’t falling in love with David. She’s falling in love with his world. It’s a place where people do things — take trips to Oxford, drink Champagne (Jenny is a Francophile), smoke imported cigarettes after a late supper — and in Jenny’s enthusiastic, youthful estimation, they therefore are somebody. It’s this idea, which becomes a willingness to overlook certain things, that catches up to Jenny as An Education moves into its second half; it’s this line you think of as she tries to pick and choose which actions, and which inaction, define David, his friends, herself. She’s still two people, a girl at home and a would-be woman when she’s out, and Mulligan deftly moves between the two, creating a portrait of coming-of-age that’s not defined by one monumental experience but through a series of steps and changes, of shifts between being a messy-haired, slouching teenager and trying to be an elegant, sophisticated young woman.

An Education slips as it winds down, drowning important scenes in a melodramatic score and heavily telegraphing what’s to come. But Mulligan shines through those pitching strings and meaningful shots, showing Jenny as she finally comes to realize what she wants — not what her parents want for her, or what David wants to give her, or what her teachers believe she should want. Some of these things overlap with Jenny’s desires, but she comes to them on her own terms. It’s this process that makes An Education stand out. Unsentimental (excepting that damn score), deliberately paced, cast to perfection and with respect for experience and education, An Education neatly sidesteps a too-judgmental tone, instead suggesting that sometimes the most important question is not what you ought to do, but why you ought to do it.

An Education opens Friday, Nov. 20, at the Bijou.