Nostalgic memoir looks at love mid-century-style
Directed by Lone Scherfig
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina
If you’re already addicted to the suave, mid-century setting of AMC’s “Mad Men,” you might want to give An Education a look-see. Think of it as an across-the-pond rumination on much the same temporal subject. Based on the memoir by British journalist Lynn Barber, the film relates Barber’s mildly scandalous teenage affair with a much older man.
Subbing for the real-life Lynn is our fictional gal Jenny (Carey Mulligan, Public Enemies). It’s the not-yet-swinging-’60s. Jenny lives in a boring suburb outside of London and does nothing more exciting than go to school under the watchful eye of her overly practical, highly provincial father (Alfred Molina in a perfectly understated role). Jenny is a clever girl and is expected to get straight As—that is, after all, how clever girls of modest means land scholarships to Oxford. Jenny does play the cello as a hobby, but that’s only to give her something to list under the “hobbies” category on her Oxford application. Everything in Jenny’s young world is mapped out within an inch of its life. But with certain revolutions (cultural, sexual and otherwise) on the horizon, Jenny is beginning to question a few things. What, for example, is the point of a good education, when the only avenues open to women are secretarial work, teaching or—for the lucky few—government service?
Jenny’s dull, prepackaged life changes one day, however, when she crosses paths with smooth-talking bon vivant David (the always fine Peter Sarsgaard from Kinsey and Boys Don’t Cry). David is wealthy, drives a sports car, listens to jazz and occasionally jets off to Paris. He’s also roughly twice Jenny’s age. That doesn’t stop either of them from getting to know one another.
It’s a marginally skeevy situation. But images of that other mid-century classic, Lolita, are quickly dispelled. Jenny is extremely mature for her age. She’s intelligent, quick-witted and yearning for the sort of worldly “education” a public school can’t offer. David seems like the perfect professor. Fortunately, our impatient pupil is smart enough not to give away her virginity on a whim or (God forbid) get herself pregnant; but she is just naive enough to think that throwing out the odd French phrase makes her sophisticated.
Through David and his good-time friends (Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike), Jenny is introduced to a whole new world of Soho jazz clubs and Chelsea fashion boutiques. Ducking out from under her parents’ gaze, she grows from young girl to young woman. Ditching her drab schoolgirl outfits for little black dresses, Jenny’s stepping boldly into the modern (soon to be “mod”) world—but at what cost? Jenny wants to be liberated, she wants to see the world, she wants to drink Champagne and hobnob with important people, but she’s becoming little more than arm candy to a rich playboy. Eventually, Jenny considers David’s surface-level sincere offer of marriage. But when her parents heartily agree to it (she’ll be well-cared for and needn’t bother with university now), Jenny starts to question just how much progress she’s actually made. Landlocked between the too-conservative lifestyle of the early-’50s and the uninhibited freak-out of the late-’60s, our gal’s at a loss for direction.
For all its clever dialogue (given extra snap by novelist/screenwriter Nick Hornby of High Fidelity and About a Boy fame) and bright, period direction (courtesy of Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig, who gave us the lovely Italian For Beginners), An Education succeeds largely through the efforts of its lead actress. Within seconds of her introduction on screen, it’s clear Ms. Mulligan is going to deliver an Oscar-level performance. She’s already been compared to a young Audrey Hepburn, and it’s an apt observation. The engaging 24-year-old thoroughly convinces as a 16-year-old. There’s never any doubt as to her character’s brains or ambitions. We sincerely like this eager young gal and quickly find ourselves invested in her well-being. Given the real-life inspiration’s eventual success as a professional journalist, we can reasonably assume that our heroine will do right by herself.
If An Education reaches a somewhat traditional, rather expected conclusion (Stay in school, gals!), it’s forgivable—perhaps because the characters and situations feel thoroughly authentic. Believable as it is, An Education doesn’t go in for that shabby, kitchen sink realism that the Brits so often admire. This is a sunny, nostalgic, humorous, ultimately romantic tale. Although it may not be romantic in the most conventional sense (Pride and Prejudice this ain’t), the film does expose us to an unforgettable heroine who is sincerely in love with life and all its possibilities—even if she isn’t quite sure of what those possibilities might be.