As young women and men, many of us feel like we can take on the world. Many of us feel that no matter what our parents, our teachers, or any other adult of consequence wants to tell us…we know what’s better. We know what we want, and we know how we’ll get it. What we didn’t know when we were young was that life promises to hand us an education. The only question, is whether that education will be granted us the easy way, or the hard way.
AN EDUCATION is the story of Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a schoolgirl growing up in London in 1960. She is in her final year of high school, and working hard to gain acceptance into Oxford. She struggles with Latin, plays the cello, and secretly yearns to be a French beatnik. Y’know – normal teenage stuff.
One afternoon, she is waiting out a particularly brutal rainstorm, when an older man (Peter Sarsgaard) pulls up in a sporty Bristol. He rolls down his window, and claims to want to save her cello from any further water damage than it might have already suffered (Great opening line – donchathink?). Moments later he is offering her a ride home, and introducing himself. His name is David, and he very quickly becomes an admirer.
However, Jenny’s parents are slightly overbearing…especially her father Jack (Alfred Molina). He has a talent for making gentlemen callers feel pretty darned worthless. What chance does a suitor like David have? a pretty good one it would appear, as David is clearly not only courting Jenny…but her entire family. And if his knack for pushing her curfew is any measure, the courtship is going well.
While her friends and parents are fully behind her budding romance, the resistance comes from her teachers. English professor Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams) and headmistress Ms. Walters (Emma Thompson) urge Jenny not to wade too deeply into the water, since they have seen more than one girl get swept away in the current of love. Unfortunately their lessons are competing with weekends in Paris, and nights of fine music and food. What chance do they have at guiding an impressionable young mind in love?
As a film, AN EDUCATION is a remarkable achievement. From its stunning opening credit sequence, to the apropos poetry of the closing song’s lyrics, it is as close to a perfect film as I have seen in a long time. Carey Mulligan is luminous in her performance. With her every word and glance, she embodies a young lady who is both tempted by sophistication, and too smart to be completely seduced by it. Through the course of the film, she must embody everything from an mousy bookworm, to an Audrey Hepburn-esque beacon of grace. To Mulligan’s credit, she achieves it all with ease.
After Carey Mulligan, the most memorable performance comes from Alfred Molina as her somewhat overbearing, often opinionated, yet easily seduced father Jack. Molina gives Jack both an authoritative and bumbling quality, and such duality is difficult to achieve. Like many fathers, he wants nothing less than the best for his daughter. Where Molina really shines, is when it seems like the best has come calling for his daughter in the form of David. He wants to hold fast to his sternness, but cannot help but wear an expression of excitement. Matter of fact, the way Molina plays these moments, Jack seems almost more excited by David than his own daughter.
The film is a tremendous achievement for both writer Nick Hornby and director Lone Scerfig. This is only Hornby’s second screenplay, but he is a literary icon having penned such novels as About a Boy and High Fidelity. I’m happy to report that he has brought his talent for everyman introspection to this adaptation of an essay written by Lynn Barber. He has taken her melodic temptation and given it lyrics, to the point where it tempts us all. At first you’ll wonder how such a clever girl can be wooed by the charms of a stranger. When you hear Hornby’s words coming out of Sarsgaard’s mouth, you’ll understand.
Lone Scerfig, a Danish director best known for ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS has officially arrived thanks to her work on AN EDUCATION. She composes every shot with the luminance of a pre-Raphaelite painting, and pushes every actor to their deepest level of honesty. She leads us down the path in such a way, that when Jenny stands before her headmistress questioning the worth of an Oxford education, we actually feel a momentary urge to back her up and demand answers ourselves. Quite simply, Scerfig’s guidance of her actors, and glorious photography is some of the best directing I’ve seen all year.
AN EDUCATION is a story about what happens when you bet on the wrong person – specifically when you bet big. Jenny stakes it all on the world David offers. He might indeed be able to scoop her up and carry her over the threshold into a life of champagne and caviar…the question that AN EDUCATION begs of Jenny, is whether she should surrender everything else she might ever want to that. Should Jenny take her pile of chips – her schooling, her family, her independence – and place them all on the part of the board David offers?
The point isn’t whether or not one will find themselves at such crossroads – it’s almost mathematical certainty that everyone will at least once. The point is, whether we make the right choice or the wrong, do we learn from it. Over and over, fate wants to teach us lessons in life. fate’s lessons never occur in a classroom, and can’t be unceremoniously ended by a bell at three pm. When fate decides it’s time to teach us something, the tricky part is whether or not we open ourselves up to such an education.