TIFF09 REVIEW: An Education [2009]

“They’re making themselves a friend”

When I think Nick Hornby, films such as High Fidelity and About a Boy come to mind. It’s obvious of course, being that he wrote the novels for which both were based, but I mention it because I really didn’t know what to expect from An Education, scripted by he and directed by Lone Scherfig. The subject matter seemed so much darker and serious than his previous work; until finding out it was based on a memoir during the opening credits, I really was perplexed. We found out later, after being asked in the post-screening Q&A why he chose to not adapt his own work, that he took this ten-page memoir because it already had the structure and characters, he just needed to infuse it with an interesting narrative. Adapting to him means “taking out about 3/4 of what you just put in” the novel; here, however was a brand new project, so invigorating to him creatively that he relayed how he may never port another of his own stories to the screen again. While utilizing some heavy material—it is a coming-of-age tale about a girl with aspirations to attend Oxford before her dream derails when courted by an older man—he does infuse his trademark humor too, a fact I’m sure Alfred Molina is happy about.

Molina plays the lead character’s father, a man who wants the best for his daughter and knows that getting into the prestigious university is the best way for her to get it. At times hard on her, he is also a very genial man who gets sidetracked when shown something he finds interesting, one who stumbles on his words and reverses decisions on a whim when trying to impress someone. His delivery of Hornby’s words is sheer comic perfection, stealing many a scene. As one audience member told him in the Q&A, he “has never sucked”. Surely a phrase begging to be elaborated on with any number of innuendo jokes, Molina just took it in stride with a smile. But it is in his role of Jack that shows how deep this film is; every piece to the puzzle is as important as the next, the bodies on the periphery are key to the success and realism of the story. Scherfig even says how “contained” the movie is, how “everything belongs in that time bubble,” of suburban London, shown in all its glory from costume, sets, manners, and actions. A slice of life for sure, An Education does carry more with it as the central plot is one that still happens today—young, naïve girl falling for the older playboy, slacking on her own trail of success as she gets caught up in his already realized wealth and power.

Carey Mulligan truly is a revelation as Jenny, the center of it all. The pretty wholesome girl next door, Jenny studies hard and achieves high grades in everything but Latin, the Achilles Heel to her dream of Oxford. She brings home the “proper” boy and toes the line as her strict Catholic school and involved parents have lain at her feet. It all comes unraveled one rainy day, though, when David comes into her world. A harmless invitation to drive her cello home so as not to become ruined from the water, (with her walking outside next to the car, to be proper), starts the relationship, but the connection is strengthened quickly after flowers are sent to wish her good luck at a recital the next day. The part is played wonderfully by Peter Sarsgaard, a role that just made sense to him—“[David] wanted to be 16 more than wanting to date someone 16”. He is a boy in a man’s body, living the high life with wealth acquired by nefarious means, strolling around town with his high-class cohorts, nary a care in the world. That kind of life would attract any woman and Jenny is no exception, nor is her father who falls hook line and sinker for his confident words and successful air. But as the story progresses, we soon learn that this teenager may be more mature than her thirty-something beau. Willing to wait until she is seventeen to make love to her, David’s need for pet names while holding each other—Minnie and Bub-a-lub—shows the childlike mentality he holds. But that just scratches the surface of his true make-up.

You really do become involved with Mulligan and her evolution into a woman. A smart girl, she fits in perfectly with David and his friend Danny, portrayed by Dominic Cooper. They talk art, culture, and thought, conversations that show how uneducated Danny’s girlfriend Helen is. She is refined and plays the woman of means right, but her “blonde” moments are many and Rosamund Pike pulls it off nicely. I’m so used to seeing her play the smart, strong woman, so to be so taken over by her vacant stare and lack of humor really tells how capable of an actress she is. The juxtaposition of these two women, at home, a nightclub, or an auction is jarring and shows the appeal these two men have in bringing the youngster into the mix. Danny always seems to be aware of something David is not letting on, but his coarse abruptness when “acquiring” a map to sell places your mind into thinking it concerns how far they will go for their money.

With actresses such as Olivia Williams, (Jenny’s teacher), and Emma Thompson, (the principal), playing the girl’s learned conscious, reminders of the possibilities that come with educational success, there is not a sub-par performance to be seen. Mulligan has a great exchange with Thompson towards the ending, asking the principal what the point of it all is. One of the film’s most memorable and thought-provoking moments, the student finally schools the teacher, but while invigorating and so “take it to the man” fun, you soon find how blinded by love she is, forgetting herself and letting laziness set in. My one quibble with the film comes in the final act from this instance and the need for redemption to reconcile the words and ideas shared in the confrontation. It is rushed and possibly unearned, but I found myself able to look beyond it as an appropriate conclusion to what came before. Other than that, though, Hornby and Scherfig have definitely created a stellar work, letting Molina run free, creating a world for the others to inhabit and breathe in, and showing the world a glimpse of a talent ready to stick around for years to come in the beautiful Carey Mulligan.

An Education 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

photography:
courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

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