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An Education, kids, get one!

September 11, 2009

Saw “An Education” last night in a packed house at Ryerson. It’s kind of interesting, isn’t it, to premiere a film about a teenage girl’s coming of age education – both academic and otherwise, in a university theater. It’s hard to say which type of education the film actually purposes to support, but one thing is for sure – there’s value in education and every kid should be getting one – choose carefully.

The film is by Lone Scherfig, who frankly, I’ve never heard of before now, but will be keeping an eye out for in the future. She constructs a story of an age-old drama – a young girl being seduced by an older, sophisticated man. She does this with a refreshing spin and a delicate eye, setting the scene in 1961 London suburb. The girl is Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a 16 year old bright-eyed and thoughtful soul who is on the cusp of womanhood. She listens to French records, plays the cello, and smokes cigarettes in cafes alongside her friends with a longing that seems to intensify with every drag. What does she long for? She probably doesn’t even know for sure herself, but she saw glimmers of it in the disarming smile of David (Peter Sarsgaard). The more she saw of him – his maroon sports car, his shared love for exquisite music, delicious food, classy jazz clubs, exciting trips, beautiful clothes and decors, the more she longed for him and the life he offers. That glimmer glowed brighter and brighter with every excursion, and plans of Oxford faded more and more into the background. Even the few revelations that slowly emerge about David couldn’t dim her desires. Perhaps against her better judgment, like a moth to a flame, she never really stood a chance, with those bright eyes and dreams of Paris.

Jenny is not a cliche of the silly helpless young girls though. She has all the youthful attributes of a girl her age, but she also possess a strength and fierce intelligence that is rarely portrayed with adequacy of young girls in cinema. She likes David. But she is not easily swayed. She dissects every decision, often consulting the advice of her well-intentioned parents. She is quick-witted. She faces criticism with her own well-phrased arguments. She has morals, but she also understands what she wants and what it takes to get it, and she makes concessions carefully. Carey Mulligan gives a convincing performance. Particularly, scenes of her in Paris resonates Audrey Hepburn undeniably. Those glasses. That dress. The period. Unforgettable.

David, on the other hand, is played with intrigue and cool detachment by Peter Sarsgaard, who is underwhelmed in the public eye as an actor until now. He always plays a character truthfully. There is a certain look in Sarsgaard’s eyes, that slight squint, a glimmer, that makes him seem formidable. Then he smiles, and you want to believe him. David even charmed Jenny’s parents with ease. Conversations between him and the father (Alfred Molina) is a real treat. In fact, Molina kind of stole the film, for me, at least. He speaks with this earnest paternal pride and authority that underlies an unabashed love for his daughter. You just want to be in his corner.

This was a very good film. But for some reason…it didn’t absorb me. I loved everything up until the key reveal scene, afterwards which David just kind of vanished without any explanation. I identified with Jenny. But I found it hard to believe her choices, with the way David’s character evolved. There were certain moments of severe awkwardness, one particularly involving a banana, that just made me cringe. A mysterious, worldly, mature man would not be caught dead doing something so silly, especially not one that is suave enough to sweet-talk his 16 year old girlfriend’s parents to whisk her away to Paris for a momentous occassion. Jenny wouldn’t fall for someone like that. I don’t believe so, at least.  I also wanted to know more about Danny and Helen, David’s friends. How much did they know David? What did Helen do before she met the boys? What did Danny really think of Jenny?

The ending just left me…wanting more, I guess. I wanted to know more of what David thought, instead of what was mildly implied. The conclusion felt cliche after the first two thirds of the film, which was a breath of fresh air.

Carey Mulligan is adorable in person…she was beautiful in these sky high red stilletos and ended up taking them off on stage during the post-film  Q&A because Nick Hornby announced that she confessed that she couldn’t stand in them any longer. Lone Scherfig was gracious. Nick Hornby was interesting. Peter Sarsgaard surprised me with his presence, both on screen and in person. You just couldn’t take your eyes off him – I’ve seen him in many films before but never like this. I feel like this could be his big break.

Anyway, Sarsgaard answered an audience question in a way that may provide some insight. It’s a fair explanation, I guess. Is it adequate? I leave that up to you.

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 22, 2009 9:07 PM

    Just saw the movie on Friday, and I understand what you mean. The characters, especially those played by Alfred Molina (how great is he!) and Carey Mulligan (there should be Oscar buzz around her), kept me interested, but the story didn’t pack any surprises. True, it didn’t quite go where one would have expected it to go, but then it did (I’m trying not to give anything away here, so sorry if the language suffers).

    Having read Ebert’s review and the article from which the memoir sprung (and from which the movie sprung), I can say that the movie is a very faithful adaptation of the real-life events that inspired it. I just wondered, at the end credits, what the point of the movie was. Was it just that she had this experience, learned from it, and moved on? And while I do highly recommend this film for the acting alone (and some of the subtleties that Nick Hornby writes into the script, showing that he understands the teenage years well), I felt that the movie didn’t penetrate as deeply as it could have into the lives of its supporting characters (as you mentioned). There were also some Hollywood cliches in the conclusion (such as Jenny’s father talking to her through her bedroom door), and yet the acting was so good in some of these scenes that I wasn’t so distressed at their inclusion in the film (in that scene I just described, Mulligan and Molina shine, making it more than the cliched scene that it often becomes in films).

    So, a very good film, but not one of the best films of the year.

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