reviewed by Marc Glassman
Lone Scherfig, director. Nick Hornby, script based on the memoir of Lynn Barber. Starring: Carey Mulligan (Jenny), Peter Sarsgaard (David), Alfred Molina (Jack, Jenny’s father), Olivia Williams (Miss Stubbs), Emma Thompson (Headmistress), Dominic Cooper (Danny), Rosamund Pike (Helen), Sally Hawkins (Sarah)
It’s the summer of 1961 and Jenny, a quick witted and pretty 16-year old Londoner is standing in the rain, clutching her cello and looking bedraggled, when a man driving a sport car stops and offers to rescue her musical instrument from the downpour. Why just the cello? Because David, her would-be Lancelot knows that a smart young lady won’t take a ride with him. A cello is another matter. Jenny laughs—lets it happen—and embarks on her sentimental education.
Directed by the Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig and creatively produced by Amanda Posey, An Education is that rarity, a mature look at a controversial romance, presented from the woman’s point of view. The story is about seduction, of course, about a teenager being corrupted by an adult, who purports to be in his twenties but might even be older than that.
David Goldman, Jenny’s Lancelot, is a con man, but—here’s a difference straight away—she seems to be less taken in by his tricks than are her parents. Like them, they want a bit of romance in their lives and sweet, hesitant, cultured and Jewish David reminds them of what it was like to be a Londoner before War-time rationing and Conservative post-War politics drained the country of its optimism. When he comes around to pick up Jenny for a classical music recital, he remembers to bring her mother flowers and her father, wine. Even Jenny is surprised at the result; they almost exult in letting David take their daughter out afterward “for a bit of supper.”
What makes An Education exceptional isn’t just the scenario by Posey’s husband Nick Hornby, though that’s well done. It’s the portrayal by Carey Mulligan as Jenny that genuinely lifts the script off the page. Like a teenager—Mulligan is actually 24—she knows the roles that Jenny must play, and in each case, she acquits herself admirably. To her posh school-friends, she’s slightly lewd and sophisticated; to her parents, she’s alternately the rebel and the successful student and to David and his friends, Danny and Helen, she’s the proper girlfriend, shyly embedding herself into their world.
In the scene when David takes her and his friends out for supper, Mulligan plays Jenny to perfection. At a swank club for the first time, with a jazz band’s singer undulating while singing a hot love song, Jenny is a mixture of awe, exuberance and fear. She may never have been in such a place before but Jenny is where she wants to be—and she’ll do nothing foolish to lose her seat at the party.
No one really matches Mulligan’s performance—this is her film to make or break. But her acting colleagues don’t let her down. Alfred Molina imbues the thankless role of Jenny’s dad, Jack, with an anxiety that make his silly decisions and diatribes understandable. Rosamund Pike is terrific as the beautiful but dumb Helen, a pre-feminist figure wholly in keeping with the early Sixties. Emma Thompson is over the top but effective as the stern Headmistress at Jenny’s all-girls school. Most fully rounded is Peter Sarsgaard who suggests the vulnerability that is at the root of David’s shiftless character.
An Education is based on a memoir by Lynn Barber, a brilliant British journalist and take-no-prisoners interviewer. It’s good to know that she learned from her “education” though she hardly escaped unscathed.