Film review – An Education (2009)

Jenny (Carey Mulligan)
Jenny (Carey Mulligan)

Based on the autobiography of British journalist Lynn Barber and adapted by Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy), An Education is a coming-of-age film about Jenny, a 16-year-old girl who starts a relationship with a much older man. An Education is the second English-language film directed by Danish director Lone Scherfig with the first being the very impressive romantic comedy/drama Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself – a film about a suicidal man. Scherfig is clearly drawn to highly unconventional feel-good material because despite the weird and uncomfortable dynamics at play in An Education it is a strangely seductive and sweet film.

Stylistically everything about An Education suggests that it is romance film. The soft lighting, gushing music and gorgeous 1960s London setting are all designed to conflict with the fact that the film is about a highly questionable relationship between a confident yet naive school-girl and an older man who is clearly not all that he seems. Jenny is played by Carey Mulligan, an emerging actor whose more prominent recent roles include a part in Public Enemies and playing Kitty Bennet in Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice.  Mulligan is astonishing and commands the screen with the assured graceful vulnerability of a young Audrey Hepburn. As Jenny she is both sympathetic in her desire to break away from her routine existence to embrace life and infuriating in her recklessness. Jenny is a likeable, strong, intelligent and assured character who is still capable of making huge errors in judgement. She’s not too far removed from the titular character in Juno except Jenny speaks, behaves and rationalises far more convincingly.

David (Peter Sarsgaard) and Jenny (Carey Mulligan)
David (Peter Sarsgaard) and Jenny (Carey Mulligan)

The supporting cast in An Education is terrific and Peter Sarsgaard (Orphan, Elegy) gives what is possibly his best performance as the mysterious David. Alfred Molina (Spider-Man 2) is wonderful as Jenny’s taskmaster father and Dominic Cooper (The Duchess) is suitably foppish as David’s playboy best friend. Emma Thompson has a couple of over-the-top yet very amusing scenes as the bigoted principal at Jenny’s school.

Scherfig is an intriguing director who is deceptively skilled at taking material that could be considered dark or unsettling and turning it into something very accessible.  There’s a lot going on under the surface of An Education but at face value it is simply a very warm, funny and enjoyable film.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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  1. Hmm I saw this on the weekend.

    Although I agree with all you said above, it was a case of despite all the elements being there, a great film did not materialise.

    It just didn’t hang together convincingly to me, despite the great performances, gorgeous styling etc. There was something unsettling about it. Usually I’d just be intrigued and amused, but this time I was slimed out and felt it should have gotten a grittier treatment – especially why the parents were so easily hoodwinked. They may have been ordinary people but at the end of the day their 16 year old daughter was being taken away for weekends by a shonky dude in his 30s – no alarm bells – at all? Really?

  2. I think the point was that the parents were just as seduced by David’s charms as Jenny was. The film is set right before the cultural explosion in England so somebody like David at that time could have perceivably seemed incredibly impressive to an English middle-class suburban family like that one Jenny came from.

  3. Yeah I realised that, but I still think it didn’t hang together properly! I can’t quite put my finger on it though.

  4. For me, this couldn’t have hung together any better. I first saw it at MIFF and it was a real highlight there. Easily one of the best screenplays I’ve seen brought to life in ages; it has the perfect balance of comedy and poignancy, light and dark shadings. I really hope Nick Hornby gets an Oscar nom for this, though he most likely won’t I suppose. Another nom for Carey Mulligan wouldn’t be out of line either.

  5. Yes, I have to say that I loved this film. There was absolutely something about it that was a bit disturbing under the surface, and thought that was what made it more than just a little, romantic movie. It has stayed with me since I saw it on the weekend. Thought the script was great, Carey was fabulous, David was charming and creepy in equal measure. And Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike were perfect as David’s friends, revealing the darker underbelly of the story, and providing comic relief in equal measure. In short, excellent.

  6. Don’t know why Peter Saarsgard was the only one I referred to by his character name?! Maybe cos it was the character of David which was charming/creepy. But a credit to Saarsgard for managing to make him charming at all!

  7. Focus on the mother – talk about sublimation! she knows in her bones what is going on but wants the excitment for her daughter that she knows she will never have. And the Dominic Cooper character – he is half in love with Jenny himself and knows that she is out of their class. Witness his comment about ‘taste’ ie she has it and they never will. But most of all I liked Helen even if she kept slipping into a Patsy Stone accent and attitude. She is stupid and at some level knows it but you feel she is good hearted. What will become of her? probably become Patsy Stone. All this goes to how multi layered and nuanced the film is.

  8. I was appalled by all the cigarette smoking. Much of the British dialog was mumbled and often unintelligible.

    The scenery and the music was somewhat redeeming, but I expected much more.

  9. Hi Jim

    It’s a pity you didn’t enjoy An Education more but I suppose we can’t all like everything. I know what you mean about the cigarette smoking but I forgave it in this case as I thought it was appropriate for the period it was set in. I had no problem with the dialogue so I wonder if that was more an issue to do with the sound quality in the particular cinema that you were in rather than the film itself?

    Thanks for your comments

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