Elevate Difference

An Education

From the moment the film started, the audience of An Education had a collective understanding that what we were about to see no longer applied. Based on the memoir of British journalist Lynn Barber, the film opens with a nostalgically ridiculous montage of ‘60s-era schoolgirls learning their daily lessons: cooking, ballroom dancing, and walking with proper posture (books-on-heads and all). As one appropriately conservative image dissolved into another, everyone in the theater—man and woman alike—was given more and more to incredulous laughter, amused and thankful for how far we’ve come and where we once were.

For this reason, we felt instantly connected to the film’s protagonist, Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a sixteen-year-old girl who is intellectually and culturally out of her time. As I watched her shut herself up in her room and sing along to French records, I was reminded of Vada Sultenfuss in My Girl, another precocious heroine of the early sixties who, too smart and intuitive for her age, finds herself mostly unable to connect with her peers and seeks refuge in her own solitude, dreaming of more. Jenny is smarter than both of her parents, even her father (a charmingly bumbling Alfred Molina), who tries in vain to rule with an iron fist and often ends up sounding like the petulant child.

Still, there are cracks in Jenny’s urbane composure, and Mulligan is masterful at finding the right moments for uncontrollable bursts of girlishness, mostly when she is overwhelmed by her older suitor, David (Peter Sarsgaard), an unnervingly charming thirty-something who pulls over in his car after a music lesson to give her shelter from the rain. Sarsgaard is quietly magnetic, to the point where we, too, are wooed by him and, like Jenny and her family, have no idea just how manipulative he is until the end of the film.

Though this unconventional romance is the main focus of An Education, the film’s issues become much broader when, in the wake of her seventeenth birthday, Jenny turns to her parents and asks, “What if I got married instead of going to college?” It is here that the film takes a sharp turn from intimate coming of age tale to rumination on the M.R.S. degree syndrome of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Jenny’s inner conflict over what kind of education will be best for her is endemic to the period, but it is treated with such elegance and subtlety that it feels utterly immediate.

It is devastating to watch Jenny’s much-too-quick tumble toward womanhood end in sacrifice and, finally, disillusionment and heartbreak. What’s even more devastating, however, is how the film resolves—or doesn’t resolve—her shattered life. As in My Girl, an abrupt Insta-Happy-Ending mends all of the protagonist’s loose, tattered ends and wraps them up in a bow with the power of voice-over narration. And even if the audience was happy to see Jenny restore her life to its former pre-David state, this reclamation of innocence seemed forced and unrealistic and left us all unsettled.

Ultimately, the film’s acting is its best feature, but that alone is far too good to miss.

Written by: Caitlin Graham, September 17th 2009

Hey Brittany! I totally missed this comment.

Re: Sarsgaard's character, I think my own feelings about him were totally colored by my crush on the actor. The casting of an actor who I personally think is very magnetic and charming was probably an intentional move on the part of the filmmakers—if they'd gone with someone who gives off a more predatory vibe from the outset, most viewers probably would have been just as unsettled as you were the whole way through.

I actually saw the film a second time after writing this review and, knowing where the relationship was headed, felt much more put off by Sarsgaard's advances than I did the first time around. Maybe I'm naive, but I did think he was genuinely drawn to her precociousness at certain points (though, as I said, I was more skeptical of his motives the second time around).

And yes, I wholeheartedly agree on the ending. I haven't read the memoir, so I have no basis for comparison, but I also find it impossible to believe that after having her life so thoroughly destroyed, Jenny would be able to mend it so easily. It kind of ruined it for me.

Thanks for your thoughts (and experience)!

Well, the better part of a year later, I finally saw this, and I'm pretty sure I'm the only person alive who hated it. Maybe I'll mellow out after I've slept on it, but my guess is that I'll only dislike it more tomorrow (and this will be further exacerbated by feeling I won't find justification for these sentiments w/ any peers or loved ones, who seem really into this film).

Am I the only one who thought Peter Sarsgaard's character was just predatory and wholly unsettling? I was never wooed by him beyond the first few minutes because of his condescending mannerisms and general lack of honesty. Maybe it hits me viscerally because of my own daddy issues. I have a super untrustworthy father who deals in shadowy trades and adultery. Or maybe it's having been in an abusive relationship with a much older man. Maybe I forget the time period and that women didn't have the same set of options and I shouldn't begrudge the main character's choices because maybe she's just less cynical than I am, can really believe a lovely older man would be after her 16-year-old self for something other than creepo ulterior motives. Maybe it's b/c I was 16 when my own personal predator showed up.

Regardless, I was fairly put off and then nearly came unglued at the end. The last five minutes were complete rubbish. Why didn't they fade with a fucking star shape to signify their utter lack of depth at that point? I get that I'm majorly negative, but am I the only one who thought that it isn't that simple, that maybe this gal would need a bit more than a few dates with "boys" to move on, to overcome her betrayal? Maybe I'm just convinced women don't get over it when men fuck up their lives, but I really think that especially because of her lack of experience and age, I find the happy ending that much harder to stomach.