An Education

Starring Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Emma Thompson, Rosumund Pike and Alfred Molina. Directed by Lone Scherfig. 100 mins.
Rated m (mature themes).


Based on the memoir by journalist Lynn Barber, An Education has been adapted for the screen by Nick Hornby.

Set in London in 1961, the year before The Beatles would be a sign to the UK and the world that the post-war age of innocence was at an end, Jenny (Carey Mulligan), is in her final year at school. Her solidly middle class family has great aspirations for their only child: an Oxford education. She has the ability and tenacity for it too. That is, until she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), a debonair, worldly twenty something year old who whisks her cello out of the rain and sweeps Jenny off her feet.

Sixteen year old Jenny is initiated into David’s world: elegant nightclubs, classical concerts, weekends in Paris, and jaunts into the country. The contrast to Jenny’s suburban prison could not be greater. It’s a time for firsts: alcohol, marijuana and falling in love. Jenny’s intoxication blinds her to the doubts that begin to grow and develop about how David and his friends fund their lifestyle, and that, for all the time they spend together, David remains a man of mystery.

The world of studies, books and Oxford is far too boring and labour intensive to compete with being David’s girlfriend. Indeed, it is only after Jenny is expelled from school by her headmistress (Emma Thompson), that her new world unravels.
An Education won the Audience and Cinematography Awards at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. US critics have talked about Oscar nominations. I liked it too, but not that much.

The major problem for me is that Carey Mulligan may well be excellent as Jenny, but she is no more 16 years of age than I am. Because she is on screen nearly the entire time, this artifice is inescapable.

Peter Sarsgaard’s David also needs to be something more to be believable: more debonair, more worldly-wise, more handsome and maybe older. As it is, his character alerts us to the danger early on and so we just wait for the coming accident.

The age thing matters here. I think the audience could buy more easily the story if the girl was actually 16, or more like it, and the suitor was a thirty year old Carey Grant.

The morality of the film is striking; Jenny is seduced in every way by a predator. In fact, in the UK in 1962 David is guilty of carnal knowledge, and he knows what he is doing.  By today’s standards we are watching an ephebophile at work. One with form too. That’s creepy enough, but David’s friends are worse.  It is immoral to turn a blind eye,  it is quite another to collude in the abuse, which is what they do.  And while Jenny’s abuse is centered around the lifestyle of the rich and famous, its after-taste is the same as if it were cheap and nasty: feelings of being used and wondering how she got herself into this situation, and if her life will ever recover.

An Education is a morality tale of how alluring pride, honour and riches can actually be, and how lucky we are if we learn about their downsides early on.

Paramount Out October 22

Fr Richard Leonard sj is the director of the Australian Catholic Film Office.

 


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