Saturday, November 28, 2009
An Education (2009) ****
It’s autumn again, the season for good movies. No more lame, big-budget video game movies or rom-com re-treads. From now to the New Year, we are guaranteed some worthwhile movies, big and small. “An Education” is one of the small ones, and very charming. The movie is taken from the memoirs of journalist Lynn Barber, with a screenplay by Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity”.) In the movie, Barber’s name is changed to Jenny, a brilliant 16-year-old who is secretly bored to tears with being a straight-A student at her all-girls school. Jenny (Carey Mulligan) seems like she isn’t even fully aware how bored she is until a flirtatious older man named David (Peter Saarsgard) introduces her to the possibilities of life in the big city. Inexplicably, Jenny’s parents allow David to court her quite inappropriately, until she figures out that there is more to David than meets the eye, most of it unsavory. What did she expect, you might wonder, of a grown man who picks up a high-school girl?
The first big question raised by this story is framed pretty well by Jenny in her tearful challenge to her parents, “Young girls are always getting seduced by older men, but what were you two thinking?” Indeed, Jenny’s parents are so ridiculously impressed by David’s good looks, fine clothes, fancy car, and fictitious Oxford education that he manipulates them even more easily than he does Jenny. I think this is partly because Jenny’s family is so nouveau bourgeois. Having managed some middle-class success, they aspire to more for their daughter, but they aren’t completely clear on what they are hoping for, or exactly why. They put her in a good school and push her to excel and aspire to Oxford, but when they are presented with a seemingly simpler prize in the form of David, who presents himself as a successful, young(ish) man who could take good care of their daughter, these parents turn out to have pretty provincial priorities.
This brings up the major theme of the film, which is, “What is the purpose of an education?” Jenny’s parents were seemingly going through the motions in encouraging her to go to college. At the end of the day, their main goal seems to have been to put her in a position to meet the right sort of fellow. While her parents are busy offering her up like a lamb to a wolf, Jenny herself seriously questions the value of a college degree in a world where the only career option for a woman seems to be teaching. There’s nothing wrong with teaching, of course, but if that is literally the only post that an educated woman can aspire to, then the whole process does seem a little bleak.
I am making it sound like the movie is a downer, but “An Education” is actually much more comedy than tragedy, with wit in even the most serious scenes. Carey Mulligan, who has the most charming face, is quite convincing as a schoolgirl; and Peter Saarsgard’s David is genuinely charming enough to pull off the seduction. Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour are cheerfully clueless as the parents, and I’ll be damned if Cara Seymour doesn’t look like she could actually be Carey Mulligan’s mother, matching dimples and all.
4 stars out of 5