Thursday, 17 December 2020

Movie Review: An Education (2009)

A coming of age romance, An Education enjoys a bright central performance and an excellent sense of time and place, but suffers from internal inconsistency and abrupt shifts in focus.

The setting is suburban London in 1961. Jenny Mellor (Carey Mulligan) is almost 17 years old and in her final school year, striving to secure a coveted admission to Oxford. She meets the much older and exceptionally charismatic David Goldman (Peter Sarsgaard), who introduces her to his glamorous friends Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike). David sweet talks Jenny's parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) into allowing their daughter to join him on trips, first to Oxford then to Paris.

Jenny is dazzled by the good life of swanky restaurants, classical music concerts, luxury hotels and cool jazz clubs, although she is also exposed to David and Danny's questionable morals. Her increasingly serious romance with David starts to impact her school performance, much to the disappointment of teacher Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams) and headmistress Miss Walters (Emma Thompson).

Based on Lynn Barber's memoirs and directed by Lone Scherfig from an eloquent Nick Hornby script, An Education sparkles with wit and charm. Capturing a society on the cusp of revolutionary change as the war generation of Jenny's parents hands the baton to their more adventurous offspring, the story of first love is mostly familiar but enlivened by the cultural buzz of a new decade's gateway.

But Hornby and Scherfig also adopt a passive and rather bewildering non-judgemental stance on what is also a troublesome story of grooming. Although Jenny at 16 has reached Britain's age of consent, David's actions are the definition of creepy manipulation of an impressionable young woman as he toys with her emotions and plays her parents for fools, lies and embellishments the fake currency he freely hands out. That David transparently exposes Jenny to some of his shady business practices and may actually fall in love with her is flimsy justification. 

At 24 but passing for 17, Carey Mulligan is a revelation, expressing with understated and patient elegance the frustrations, joys and responsibilities of emerging adulthood. But she does fall foul of an internal lack of consistency: Jenny is portrayed as smart, articulate and possessing phenomenal self-awareness and the ability to calmly debate with adults. In short, exactly the type of young woman who should have seen right through David's sleazy antics. Peter Sarsgaard does his part, shielding a predator behind a seducer's easy smile and jet-set lifestyle.

The final chapter grinds the gears with a jerky shift away from romance and the school-of-life towards the value of a traditional education, Miss Stubbs and Miss Waters suddenly gaining prominence. An Education is full of lessons learned, some more smoothly delivered than others.



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