An Education (2009)

Dir. Lone ScherfigStarring Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina

Movies about young adults very frequently – that is, always – feel a need to tell the audience that their characters change. One’s teenage years [he sighed while cleaning his eyeglasses] are the beginning of a life’s summer, after a springlike childhood and before the autumn that is middle age. It is hard to think of a more tiresome concept than learning that teenagers are changing and changeable. Everyone knows. Why make a movie about it? Isn’t an underlying moral of The Hunger Games or Divergent or Harry Potter or The Fault in Our Stars that as difficult as one’s situation might be – from state-ordered bloodsport to state-sanctioned bloodsport, magical Hitler or cancer – it’s not quite as tough as growing up. Indeed, the Hunger Games or finding Horcruxes are merely the outer statement of becoming an adult in the way that a zit is a signification of pores clogged by sebum.

What makes An Education so marvelously refreshing is that while you know that Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is sixteen years old at the movie’s end and seventeen for some of its most important scenes, the film doesn’t belabor her age. Although she spends her time almost exclusively with older people, none of them seem to care that she’s, by virtually every definition of the word, a child. Only a child would dream of having a date in mind to lose her virginity, and only a child would cut off all lines of retreat when she is engaged and thinks herself free from what she views as the bougie tyranny of work, parents, and school. What is most wonderful about Jenny’s teenage presence in the film, though, is how clear her motivation is, and how common. Jenny is bored, bored out of her skull, and when a mysterious and handsome and wealthy and cultured fellow pops out of a rainstorm – and, like it’s the movies, continues popping up – she seizes her opportunity not to be bored anymore.

Studying is hard and boring. Teaching is hard and boring. So, what you’re telling me is to be bored, and then bored, and finally bored again, but this time for the rest of my life?…So my choice is to do something hard and boring, or to marry my -Jew, and go to Paris and Rome and listen to jazz, and read, and eat good food in nice restaurants, and have fun!

During the film, I wanted to scream at her: “Jenny! Don’t settle! The Beatles are going to take the world by storm in a couple years! Don’t run away with him! For goodness’ sake, it’s the sixties!” She didn’t listen. (They never do. Alas, teenagers.)

An Education is Carey Mulligan’s breakout film; although she is the same age as Keira Knightley, her co-star in Pride and Prejudice and Never Let Me Go, her freshness and round face make her seem far younger. She’s very good in this movie. Someone else’s review will tell you how good she was. I can’t say that I’ve ever watched Carey Mulligan in a movie and thought she was terribly interesting, but she is certainly very good. The hullabaloo about Mulligan in this movie, curiously enough, elides the fact that this film is the definition of an ensemble cast. Peter Sarsgaard as David is like watered-down vanilla froyo in this movie; his clothes and his car get to act for him. He doesn’t speak very much, really, and not very loudly, and he betrays very little. He is nothing much. It’s clear he’s nothing much. And he blends into the film’s background beautifully, for it is not his film. Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike are pitch perfect as well, the weird shadow version of Jenny and David, weird because they have personalities. Pike is only six years older than Mulligan, and was just thirty in this film, but she is made up and costumed in such a way to make her appear virtually ancient next to her fresh-faced co-star. The film’s humor hits best when it comes from Pike’s Helen (and while we’re talking about attempted humor, let’s acknowledge Emma Thompson’s headmistress character, who is terrifically dull and not even on purpose, and then move on), playing the dumbest woman in London. David managed to get Jenny’s parents (more on them later) to let her come to Oxford for a weekend by claiming that she would get to meet C.S. Lewis. Helen finds out later that C.S. Lewis is a real person, and she is floored.

Cooper, who was uninteresting in Starter for Ten, as interesting as anyone else on screen in The History Boys, and scenery in Mamma Mia!, hits a crest again in An Education as David’s partner in crime, hyuk hyuk, Danny. For the first time, Dominic Cooper’s hair isn’t styled by a hairdresser whose motto is “Excelsior!” and it is a relief. Danny is everything that Jenny thinks David is, and the growing knowledge of it from the viewer’s end is one of the thrills of the film. He growls more than once at Jenny and then apologizes as sweetly as Dominic Cooper can. His scene, when he dances with Jenny above the greyhound races, is one of the most engrossing of the whole picture, for it opens up possibilities in the film that previously seemed closed. Insofar as one can root for a seventeen-year-old to run away with a much older man and a thief at that, one roots for Jenny to steal Danny away from Helen. He appears to be the only one in this film to have his feet on the ground, to know exactly what he’s doing. Everyone else is flailing for control, or for dignity, or for solid footing. Danny might be a common swindler and a scoundrel, but he isn’t stupid, and he can call things by their right names.

Alfred Molina, weirdly enough, gets the best acting part of the film, and he runs with it. Molina plays Jenny’s overbearing father, Jack, a screamingly funny caricature of the postcolonial English master. Watching the film, he seems like a demented Mr. Banks; it would be odd to hear David Tomlinson’s voice escape from him, but only a little. Looking back on it, I get a much stronger Dursley vibe from him, and from his wife, Marjorie, played by Cara Seymour. (Seymour wins the “Actor with range” competition in this film: she played Hell-cat Maggie in Gangs of New York.) Seymour makes the same kind of faces in this film that Petunia wears in the first Harry Potter movie. Life is like a game of hopscotch for Jack; one thing follows another, and those things progress logically, if ad infinitum, one from another. Good grades at school lead to Oxford. Or, meet a handsome man who cares about you and get married. Whatever it is that Jenny decides to do (which, of course, he will co-sign), it leads away from his house.

When everything falls to pieces, as we knew it would as soon as we saw Chekhov’s mother and child crossing the street about five minutes into the picture, Jack is not immediately at his best. He and his wife fell under David’s spell  at least as hard as their daughter did. He spouts off some line that would have worked on a ten-year-old, telling Jenny that he’s still her father. Jenny’s response is, given her circumstances, appropriately withering: was he still her father when he was getting wined and dined by a con man, or does that only apply when he’s trying, impotently, to take control of a situation?

An Education, for all of its talk of Paris! Jazz! Art! Races! Clubs! Sports cars! Crime! is not a loud movie. It does not ask us to go 160 kilometers per hour, and it does not need to raise its voice to be heard. How, then, does Alfred Molina manage to play the best scene in the movie so quietly? Coming up to Jenny’s closed door with a cup of tea and some biscuits, a stereotype in suspenders, he does what he can to take responsibility: he is totally honest. He tells Jenny that he and her mother were listening to the radio when it talked about C.S. Lewis’ association with Cambridge, not Oxford. “Imagine the radio getting that wrong!” he crowed to his wife. It’s a devastating moment, spoken and acted with such incredible restraint, that it is far more heartbreaking than anything else that Jenny has to endure.

Being a teenager, especially in a movie, is about becoming an adult. Becoming an adult, inevitably, means realizing that the other adults are fallible, and the stakes of their fallibility are much more dangerous than the foibles of children. Jack stands outside Jenny’s door and tells her that he has been took, and leaves the tea and biscuits outside. There are other moments in the film where Jenny might be said to have become an adult; she has sex; she fields a proposal of marriage; she goes to college. But of course, she’s only really let into the club when her father, all bombast and pomp before, lets his guard down and tells her that he’s been had just as surely as she has. They get to be together – as adults – in their regret.

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