REVIEW: ‘An Education’

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Grade: B-

“Action is character,” Jenny recites to David in a moment of realization – as humans we are defined by what we do, and in Jenny’s mind she didn’t do anything until she met David. The quotation that starts off the previously described scene simultaneous points out the best and worst parts of the movie An Education from director Lone Sherfig. It’s an intensely character-driven drama that features great individual performances across the board. The characters are colorful and fantastically varied, but their story lines do not mesh well resulting in an uneven pace, and imprecise theme.

An Education has a lot of great things going for it. The first two-thirds of the film are solidly directed and shot, underscored with an excellent soundtrack of classical, jazz, and pop music. It also has some of the best performances you will see this year, most notably from Alfred Molina and Oscar-bound newcomer Carey Mulligan. However, a third act tonal shift essentially destroys a lot of the thematic depth that came before and attempts to turn the picture into an upbeat morality tale, rather than a bitter coming-of-age drama.

However, all of the flaws are almost reconcilable by the excellent performance from the leading newcomer Carey Mulligan. She plays Jenny, a sixteen year old British schoolgirl who has forced aspirations to read English at Oxford. Despite Jenny’s insistence that she is her own woman – independent, intellectual, and strong – she shows her impressionable simplicity when she meets David, a smooth-talking, well-dressed man in his mid 30s. In the first half of the film, we are only exposed to David through the eyes of Jenny and through the eyes of a sixteen year old school girl he is a mysterious and romantic figure. David exposes Jenny to art, music, restaurants, and whets the appetite of a culturally impoverished young girl.

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Jenny is deprived of all of her desires while she is at home. Her clueless, but loving father is only interested in settling her down and he believes her only path to success is by studying hard and getting an education at Oxford. Like his daughter, he is easily charmed by David to the point where he is willing to sway from his lifelong convictions. The only people who seem to see through David’s smooth façade are Jenny’s schoolteachers who have witnessed young girls give up a path for career success and run off with older men, only to regret it later in life.

Amongst David’s posse is Danny, an intellectual friend who helps David along with his con game, and Helen the attractive, but unintelligent and powerless wife of Danny who represents what Jenny may become. Jenny’s new group of peers brilliantly contrasts her schoolmates who are presented as awkward and unexciting.

The two world’s in which Jenny inhabits are excellently portrayed by director Lone Scherfig. At school and at home there is little color, the rooms are dimly lit, and the outfits are dreary and simple. Contrarily, the apartment of Danny, which she frequents, is speckled with art, musical instruments, and color. The people are glamorous and the rooms are romantically lit, directing your eye to the particular items that entrance Jenny. Among the many Oscar nominations that this film is likely due to receive, costume design should definitely be on the list.

However, if any Oscar that comes this movie’s way is deserved it is definitely Best Actress. Carey Mulligan’s cinematic debut is the kind that will gather increasing buzz throughout the year and later be used to define her career. She was twenty three at the time of the filming, but she flawlessly pulls off sixteen with all of the innocence and excitement that you would accept, and an additional level of depth that adds wonderful dimension to the character. Time and again Jenny is deceived by David, and in the eyes of Mulligan you can see that she desperately wants him to be the romantic figure of girlhood fantasy. Her desire trumps her instinct and she is persuaded both internally and externally to go back to him. Mulligan is so convincing that it felt right to cheer her on as she betrays her parents and throws her life away.

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Mulligan is not the only laudable performance in this finely acted film. Alfred Molina has the best comedic moments as Jack, her clueless father who is more easily dissuaded than his daughter. Olivia Williams delivers a subtle performance as Jenny’s schoolteacher who gets little narrative development, but you suspect a past that mirror’s Jenny’s present based on her hesitant delivery. Even Emma Thompson who has no more than a bit part steals her scenes with a stern power that is entertaining and surprising at the same time.

The script by novelist Nick Hornby has some great moments, but as a whole is pretty flawed and the direction by Lone Scherfig starts off strong, but becomes uneven. The movie unfortunately gets worse with each respective act as tonal and perspective shifts don’t seem to fit with the direction the film had been moving in. For instance, we only see David through the perspective of Jenny’s rose-colored glasses through the first half of the film. Then instead of seeing David’s exposure through Jenny’s realization we see moments of David alone. Also, Jenny’s final monologue is far too upbeat, which essentially discounts the intended lesson of An Education.

Bottom Line: Fantastic performances, some rather funny moments, but overall you won’t learn much from this Education.

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  • Unfortunately I haven’t been able to get out to one of the art house theaters to see this. No offense, but I hope you’re wrong about this movie (since I’ve been anticipating it for months).

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