Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

Nov 4, 2009

An Education (2009)

by Will Ross

It's not that it isn't an enjoyable movie. It starts out smart, funny, and with a thoughtful eye on uncomfortable subject matter. And it's not that having a message is a bad thing. But those things become problems because An Education, a British coming-of-age film based on a memoir by Lynn Barber and directed by Lone Scherfig, doesn't seem to start and finish as the same picture.

The initially comedic film is set in the early 60s and easily ingratiates itself to the audience with a very funny presentation of a very boring life in school. Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a brilliant, pretty 16-year-old girl with ambitions of reading English at Oxford University, works hard and excels in her classes. But she yearns for the romanticism of high-class living, dreaming of life in Paris imagined through the hum of a French record or her showy use of French phrases in everyday conversations. Her parents have little time to address her dreaming; Jenny summarizes her impressions of her father's views as "Feeling is bourgeouis." Played by Edward Molina, the patriarch provides most of the film's funnier moments but tempers his performance with a good-natured desire to see his daughter happy. However much her father may care and feel for her, Jenny feels suffocated by the unwavering regiment of schoolwork he sets before her.

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It is at this point that David (Peter Sarsgaard), a charming man of high living in his mid 30s, meets Jenny and initiates a relationship with her, taking her to classical music concerts and late night dinners with his friends and showing her things that she had always wanted to experience. David's romantic intentions are obvious, and Jenny, carried away by the glamour of his fun and easy life, is swept away into a starry-eyed romance.

It's a credit to the charm and worth of Sarsgaard and the wide-eyed naïveté of Mulligan that the relationship feels believable rather than simply a contrived sexual perversion. David invents stories, such as claiming to personally know C.S. Lewis, to convince Jenny's parents to let him take her away for weekends. Her at-first obstinate father warms and relents each time, and Jenny is allowed her three days of escape. The two eventually become intimately involved both romantically and sexually, with David eager to teach and Jenny craving new adventures. However, Scherfig's direction begins exposing the truth behind David's "easy living" so early that it undercuts the building of audience sympathy and makes a villain out of him for most of the film. It becomes clear that David's lifestyle is earned dishonestly, and at around the halfway point the film turns from an unsettling and fascinating examination of a teen seduction by a well-groomed grown man into a moral tale.

Unlike films like Lost in Translation, which allow the audience an unbiased view of both lives their characters must choose between, An Education spends much of its latter half living up to its title in the wrong ways: Overly didactic, narrowly moralizing, and preachy. In the last act, the lesson "There are no shortcuts in life" is beaten so hard and breathlessly over the audience's heads that the film seems to leave behind its objective, penetrating examination of lifestyle choices for a polarized dismissal of one lifestyle in favour of the other. Even one of David's friends disapproves of things continuing on as they have been with a heartfelt explanation to Jenny, and he expresses disappointment on learning she and David are engaged. The couple ludicrously chalks it up to "Jealousy", a clear attempt to make them seem willfully ignorant rather than honest lovers. It's the equivalent of starting an open conversation with an unbiased party and ending it by sitting back and listening to a zealot repeating his points over and over until you're forced to agree or spend an eternity on the receiving end of a one-sided conflict.

The film was based on a memoir, but it's unfortunate that the story tries to force the audience into accepting the same conclusions as the author, and with such nagging, one-sided persistence. What starts as a funny, poignant discussion of an adolescent's sexuality and dreams gradually turns into a long, unwelcome lecture.

Good lord, does that poster ever work to downplay the age factor.


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