Saturday, November 28, 2009

An Education (2009)

Jenny (Carey Mulligan), the Russian cigarette-smoking, French music-listening, Latin textbook-studying, British-born schoolgirl must make the hardest decision of her young life. She must choose between what her father (Alfred Molina) wants: a boring education at Oxford (that he would pay for) followed by a boring career and what she wants: moving to France, wearing black, drinking and smoking.

Jenny is not the most sympathetic of characters, especially when viewed from the context of the recession. Not very many people get private education paid for, nor do they get the chance to marry spontaneous, rich and attractive men with a penchant for traveling and the arts. Jenny has the option of either, yet she seems to take it all for granted.


She abandons her banal life of British schoolboys, Oxford and Camus and cafés for David (Peter Sarsgaard), her older, richer, more exciting lover. And when her plans are ruined, it is hard to feel compassion for the naïve girl. But, in a standard coming-of-age twist, Jenny admits her stupidity and mistakes and is allowed to attend the prestigious Oxford, schoolboys and all.

The story is a simple, typical bildungsroman, and the director, Lone Scherfig, supports this; there are few shots that suggest individuality. Barney Pilling’s editing is predictable, and Paul Englishby’s score could have been taken from any other drama film that tries just a little too hard. These aren’t necessarily bad things. Rather, they enforce an important theme in the film: Jenny’s struggle with the uniformed, prescribed life that has been placed on her by her father. When she is studying, imprisoned by the unoriginal subjects, she is visually imprisoned by the latticework of her bedroom windows. However, when David whisks her off to France, the frame rate is cut, the mise-en-scène becomes more spacious and varied and the camera pans, tracks, and zooms quickly, much like Jenny’s favorite films of the Nouvelle Vague. Back at home, in the suburbs of London, film becomes less creative and the editing returns to a more conventional style.

Carey Mulligan’s superb performance is perhaps one of the only things that keeps An Education from becoming a trite, out-of-touch tale. Her acting is sincere; Jenny’s tears and occasionally clichéd dialog (thank you, Nick Hornby) do not seem forced. In the film’s final scenes, it is Mulligan’s genuinely humbled demeanor, not any cinematic technique or musical cue, that shows the viewer that Jenny is not looking for pity.

Jenny questions her teachers (and the audience) about the importance of education. She inquires as to why it is so important that she finish her exams and attend Oxford where they “don’t want you to think for yourself.” At the end of the film, once she has obtained her education, she does not ask the audience to learn from her mistakes. She asks that they learn from their own mistakes.

Grade: B-

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