Review #469 - An Education (2009)

Review #469

Director: Lone Scherfig
Plot: A coming-of-age story about a teenage girl in 1960s suburban London, and how her life changes with the arrival of a playboy nearly twice her age.

Genre: Drama
Awards: Nom. for 3 Oscars - best picture, lead actress, adapted screenplay. Won Audience Award, and Cinematography Award, and nom. for Grand Jury Prize (Sundance).
Runtime: 95min
Rating: PG for mature thematic material involving sexual content, and for smoking.


Directed by award-winning Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig of Italian For Beginners (2000), An Education won the Audience Award in Sundance, and is tipped to earn a Best Picture Oscar nomination in the revamped format for this year. Starring Carey Mulligan in an amazing performance as Jenny, a sixteen year old schoolgirl who falls in love with David (Peter Sarsgaard), a charming man almost twice her age. The film explores the romance between Jenny and David in detail and uses their relationship as a lens to seek, with greater understanding, the issues of gender liberation in an era of paranoia.
Set in Britain in the early 60s – a period of unease and confusion over gender roles – An Education provides a fascinating glimpse of life as faced by an ordinary schoolgirl who harbors dreams of reading English as a major in Oxford. Well, she is not so ordinary; she is quite smart and beautiful, and she loves to play the cello. She takes a lift from David, then a stranger, during a heavy downpour one afternoon, and instantly succumbs (though she is subtle about it) to his charm. A further few meetings and a lovely romance blossoms between the pair.
And then there are Jenny’s parents – conservatives who only want the best for their child which translates into no late nights out, acing exams, and dating boys her own age. Well, not until they met David who also charms his way into her parents’ acceptance and eventual approval. Torn between the dream of studying in Oxford and a life of extravagance and pleasure together with David who has the cash to burn, Jenny chooses the latter. The film then becomes “an education” for Jenny as she learns through experience that the world may not be as blissful as it seems.
Mulligan’s impressive display ought to earn her an Oscar nomination. Her confident delivery of dialogue reminds of Ellen Page in Jason Reitman’s Juno (2007) and her natural ability to slip into a role meant for someone much younger than herself is exceptional. In a sequence shot in Paris, Mulligan oozes style and glamour (drawing comparisons with Audrey Hepburn) as she indulges herself in the allure of high culture as if she was born into it. The supporting cast deliver excellent performances as well, most notably Alfred Molina, who plays Jenny’s nerve-wreck of a father.
Scherfig takes the master narrative of boy (man, in this case) meets girl and weaves it into an expertly-told character study of Jenny, who despite her cheerful and optimistic demeanor, feels confused about her role as a female operating in the larger constructs of society. Is a formal education important to succeed in life? Perhaps the more probing question is: Does a woman require such an education when she could just marry a knight in white and enjoy a life of luxury and material satisfaction? One somehow feels that Jenny has the knowledge but not the wisdom to think for herself, and thus “the education” she receives from her experience with David serves as a driving impetus to achieving her dream of academic pursuit in Oxford, which I believe is what she had always wanted.
From a narrative with its fair share of character revelations and twists, An Education ends on a queer note, a feeling of dissatisfaction even. Scherfig’s deliberate misdirection leaves the film ‘climaxing’ without the power that it should already have possessed till then. While by no means a major flaw, it does leave viewers expecting something more in terms of emotion and character redemption. An Education, however, remains to be one of the year’s most rewarding films. See it for the strength of Mulligan’s performance, and Scherfig’s skillful characterizations.

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