Monday, November 2, 2009

Make Me Your Matey, and I'll Give You My Independence: An Education

Blogger's note: Since the Teen Girl Trifecta feature (where I reviewed Whip It!, Ginger Snaps, and Now and Then in the span of three weeks) was so well-received by all y'all, I'm going to resurrect it with three new reviews.  See, I DO listen!  We begin with the new Brit film An Education, so throw your mittens around your kittens and awaaaaay we go!

For a while, I wasn't sure what to think about An Education.  I mean, the shallow part of me was all, "Oooh!  1960's!  England!  Fashion!  Peter Sarsgaard with an accent!  Dreamy Dominic Cooper!"  In other words, the squealy sixteen-year-old that never quite found her way out of my subconscious was jumping up and down in her belly shirt and hip hugger jeans.  Then the almost-thirty, educated feminist in a skirt and tights took over with a wallop of guilt: by viewing a film about a teenage schoolgirl seduced by a much older and wealthier man, am I condoning pedophilia?  Am I saying it's okay because it's only a movie and both actors are really attractive?  For the love of God, what would the commenters on Jezebel say?

Then I got over myself and went to the movie theatre.

In a nutshell: Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is preparing to apply for Oxford, with the help of her loving but overbearing mum and dad (Cara Seymour and the forever brilliant Alfred Molina).  She's obsessed with Paris, loves to read, and is so bad at Latin that she requires a private tutor her parents really can't afford.  One rainy day after orchestra rehearsal, Jenny is soaking wet and lugging her cello--when a handsome stranger offers her a lift, expressing concern for her instrument.  And Jenny's life is never the same.

Let's get this out of the way right now: the premise is inherently creepy.  I mean, a middle-aged (albeit very good-looking) guy with shady career pursuits seduces an underage girl whose eyes are as big and uninformed as her future plans...and her parents are okay with it?  Today, Chris Hansen would no doubt be inviting Peter Sarsgaard's character, David, to take a seat.  Right over there.

Except An Education doesn't take place today.  It takes place in 1961.  Granted, I wasn't alive during that era, but I watch Mad Men, which my mom assures me is terrifyingly accurate.  Women were earning more life options, sure, but not without fighting every step of the way--and this progress didn't always immediately reach the lower middle class that Jenny's family belongs to.  Even further back than the 1960's, an old dude and an underage chick were not only socially acceptable, but encouraged, particularly if the girl came from less than affluent means.  David snows them without much difficulty: all he has to do is name-drop C.S. Lewis and open a bottle of wine, and suddenly he's squiring Jenny to Oxford and Paris with their blessing. 

No matter that Jenny's English teacher (Olivia Williams) and headmistress (Emma Thompson, how I love thee) are vehemently against the relationship.  Jenny sees them as dull and lifeless, no comparison to the flashy lifestyle of David and his Ken-and-Barbie cohorts (Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike).  Because Jenny is young, she only sees the efforts of her teacher and headmistress to gain and keep their careers--not the less-tangible rewards.  So what if her new friends can barely recognize a book?  They're pretty and fancy and far more exciting than Latin homework.

Where I think An Education succeeds the most is really showing us the world through Jenny's eyes.  This is largely in part due to the screenwriting prowess of one of my favorite authors, Nick Hornby.  Years ago, I hated Hornby's How to Be Good because I didn't think he accurately captured the voice of a woman.  If An Education and his new novel Juliet, Naked are to be believed, ol' Nicky has really stepped up to the plate.

I was really with Jenny throughout the film, and not because I'm a YA junkie.  She's so articulate and sweet that I would have loved to be her pal, and quite frankly, who wouldn't be dazzled by a dashing older man who promises you the world and for a while at least, delivers on his promises?  Because homework is boring and parents are lame, but jewelry sparkles! 

Because I'm no longer a sixteen-year-old girl, I knew where the plot was going.  It wouldn't be called An Education if the youthful protagonist didn't learn.  That said, the point of view was so heartbreakingly accurate that I forgot about Jenny's inevitable shattered illusions.  I was sad with her.  I hoped that she would be able to pull herself up and move on.  Thanks to the skillful writing, direction and acting, I was able to put my cynicism aside and really immerse myself in the story.

Speaking of acting, the principal cast is strong.  Both Molina and Thompson could act out out the alphabet and I'd be in the front row.  Sarsgaard once again showcases his versatility by tossing out charm like Halloween candy, in a very believable dialect.  Cooper is dashing with a glimmer of conscience, and Pike is wonderfully comic as a contentedly shallow trophy.  But the real star here is Carey Mulligan: her Jenny is equal parts silly and serious, frothy and fraught.  She was so convincing that even though I know about labor laws, age of consent, etc etc, I was blown away to learn that she's not actually sixteen.

In the spirit of the early '60's, I'll channel Don Draper here and say that An Education is the equivalent of a perfect cocktail.  Deliciously sweet, with a definite bite, and stays with you the next day.  You won't get a hangover, though.  Promise.


  1. Thank you for reviewing this movie! I've been dying to see it and will probably make good on that plan when I return home for Thanksgiving break. If I were Jenny, I would definitely have been easily, easily seduced by a worldly man like David...aside from the fact that I've long been attracted to older men, if he was dressed well in a tailored suit and dropped some Frank Sinatra song lyrics around me, all of my logic would be gone like that. May-December romances have long fasincated me. You should definitely watch "Blue Car" for a more modern take on it.

  2. I saw an ad for this at one point and heard nothing else about it--I was intrigued. Thanks for reviewing always shed light on stuff I'm not sure if I should see or not.

    And I too have some love for Mr. Hornby. Well, I haven't read any of his books but I loved About a Boy and Fever Pitch. (NOT the American version, thank you very much, but the Colin Firth one! Go Arsenal!)

  3. Heather--I never thought I was much for dapper older gentlemen in suits. Then I started watching Mad Men. Rawr.

    Sadako--you should also try High Fidelity, in both forms. The book is laugh out loud hilarious, and the movie is a love letter to my beloved Chicago. It filmed here when I was a college freshman, and I know a few people who were extras, including a couple who are pretty visible!

  4. I saw the trailer for this and thought it looked unutterably twee, but all I can read are sparkling reviews and so maybe I'll have to actually watch it. Plus the cast sounds fantastic. Your review is definitely the best I've read so far.

    Also - those were my exact thoughts after reading How To Be Good.

  5. Wow, I never even heard of this before, and I really like Nick Hornby. A Long Way Down is one of my favorite books! Really like that actor too. I can imagine his boyishness would really cut down on the ick factor...

  6. Will definitely try to check it out, thanks!

  7. I'm so far behind on reading and commenting on blogs.....

    I have a lot of Nick Hornby love. High Fidelity is so awesome in novel form and in movie form. John Cusack makes me swoon for reasons I can not explain, though I swoon harder for Peter Sarsgaard. I actually had no idea An Education was Hornby. I can't wait to netflix this bitch.

  8. Laura--thanks for the compliment! Give Juliet, Naked a try. I really think he took the criticism of How to Be Good and ran with it (or at least, that's how it goes in my twisted mind).

    Bryn--I love A Long Way Down too. I think for a while Johnny Depp was attached to a film version (maybe even just as producer or something). I'd trust him to do a good job with it.

    Nikki--I will always, always, ALWAYS love The Cusack. I don't care how many What a Douche stories I hear, how many shit films he does, he gets a lifetime pass from me for High Fidelity, Say Anything, Cradle Will Rock, and Sixteen Candles (when he was a lil pipsqueak just starting out). His hotness and intelligence cannot be denied and he is welcome in my bed, I mean life, any time.

    I like Peter Sarsgaard too, and he's definitely dreamy in this film, made even dreamier by his British accent! (Ed Norton is the same way in The Painted Veil.)

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