Friday, October 16, 2009

An Education

An Education is a coming of age tale about a sixteen-year-old girl who falls in love with a man twice her age. Relatively unknown Danish director Lone Scherfig has created a film that truly captures the innocence of youth. The script itself is based upon the memoirs of British journalist Lynn Barber who didn’t originally publish her story until this year. There was an essay written in the "Granta", a student publication at Cambridge University, which featured Barber’s personal story. Screenwriter Nick Hornby read this and immediately was draw to the story. He states that what appealed to him most was this “suburban girl who's frightened that she's going to get cut out of everything good that happens in the city. That, to me, is a big story in popular culture. It's the story of pretty much every rock 'n' roll band.” Hornby, a novelist himself, also wrote the screen adaptation for such popular films as High Fidelity and About a Boy, and applies his usual shrewd understanding of pop palatability again here.

Production designer Andrew McAlpine masterfully constructs a somber setting of post-World War II London. A feeling of repression lingers in each scene which so eloquently demonstrate what the city was like before the huge artistic counterculture of the 1960s. The period itself plays into the characters a great deal, because it is the foundation for so much of who they are and how they approach the circumstances before them. There is a vast contrast of moods created by the littlest things like a rainstorm or a costume change. Scherfig keeps the visual angels on screen low and close to the actors throughout the entire film. For such a character driven piece, this is a brilliant tactic by the director because it creates an intimacy where empathy otherwise might not readily lend to the audience. But ultimately, it is the performances that truly bring this story and this film to the limelight.

Carey Mulligan as Jenny
Young British actress Carey Mulligan astutely portrays the main character of Jenny. Up until now, she has been widely under the radar, appearing mainly on British television and in supporting roles in such films as Pride & Prejudice and Public Enemies. Scherfig had auditioned many girls for the part, but something about Mulligan captivated her. “Carey was always the one I liked best,” she says. “We adjusted the part a little bit to her.” She is attractive without being too glamorous and captures the essence of Jenny by fostering an intelligent yet idealistic adolescent. The way Mulligan interacts with her costars conveys an actress well beyond her years. Many have justfully compared her to screen legend Audrey Hepburn. But will Mulligan have the same kind of golden appeal to excite an Academy Award? Most critics have already deemed her as a lock for a nomination, if not the current front-runner, and I am most certainly in agreement. Mulligan’s performance clearly registers as one of the best of the year. You can see the determination and ambition in her eyes, while still maintaining a demonstrative sense of naiveté.

Matthew Beard as Graham, with Mulligan
“Carey has a sweetness to her that suits the film. If we had written it that way, I would worry the film was overly cute. But she is really like that, it comes to her naturally. I chose to risk a little more of that rather than focus on Jenny's lippiness and fighting with her father.” proclaims Scherfig. Jenny is the victim of her parent’s expectations. They seek to mold her into being an accomplished student and ultimately gain acceptance into the prestigious Oxford University. This is obviously more of her father’s notion than her own. Jenny herself fantasizes of a cigarette-smoking, music embellishing, French culture driven world that she has only read about. As naturally expected of most all suppressed individuals, Jenny seeks to rebel, but only subtly at first. She sneaks around with her girlfriends, smoking and gossiping, as any normal teenage girl might. She even has captured the fancy of a young boy, played by Matthew Beard, who courts Jenny early in the film under the surveillance of her parents. Until this point, it seems like Jenny’s life is pretty atypical. This all changes once she meets David.

Peter Sarsgaard as David
Peter Sarsgaard plays the part of David Goldman, an eccentric thirty-something year old who divides his time between extravagant outings and his so-called business endeavors. Sarsgaard reminds me a great deal of a friend of mine (Benji K.) who not only looks a lot like him, but has the same kind of restless ambition that is easily alluring. David not only manages to charm Jenny with his debonair style and whirlwind ideals of romance, but everyone else he encounters as well. David inadvertently stumbles upon Jenny in a chance meeting while he is driving by in his maroon colored Bristol, amidst a torrential downpour outside the studio where she has cello rehearsals. He implores her to save her instrument from water damage by allowing him to chauffer it to her destination. He assures her that he’s merely interested in rescuing her cello and suggests that she just walks along side the car as he drives. Jenny succumbs and soon enough, she too is being driven home by this perfectly charming stranger. So begins Jenny’s relationship with David, and the heart of the story.

Mulligan with Dominic Cooper as Danny
By today's standards, it would be easy to dismiss this courtship as immoral and inappropriate, considering their age difference. But that instinctive reaction is easily dismissed after it becomes very apparent that Jenny is courting David just as much. The encounters she has as a direct result of dating David force a sophistication upon her that she questionably may not be ready to coop with. Sarsgaard is both appealing and devious all at once. He certainly knows that Jenny is far younger than him, but asks her out just the same, “Do you go to concerts?” Jenny responds, “No, we don't believe in concerts.” “Oh, I assure you, they're real.” She accepts his invitation under the condition that he is able to gain her parent's permission. No easy feat considering just how controlling her they are, particularly her father Jack, played by Alfred Molina. But his suave tactics prevail, as David showers Jenny’s mother Marjorie (Cara Seymour) with compliments and manages to relate to Jack on his level. All of a sudden, Jenny is catapulted into a world where she no longer is just imagining this extravagant lifestyle; she is actually living in it.

Alfred Molina as Jack Mellor
Molina’s performance as Jenny’s overbearing yet sincere father is nothing short of brilliant. He adds depth and persona to an otherwise annoying character, by conveying true sincerity while still communal. His yelling and commanding tone reaches beyond just maintaining control of his household. Jack seeks to guide his only child to a path of certainty and security. And even though his constant bellowing may seem like him just being an overprotective father, Molina reveals himself to be much more, as a genuinely concerned guardian. Himself, a vastly underrated actor, Molina has finally garnished the kind of praise that may grant him an Oscar nomination next February. I think he deserved more attention for his turn as Diego Rivera in Frida, but it is better late than never.

Olivia Williams as Miss Stubbs, with Mulligan
Jenny can be categorized as the classic overachiever. She is studious, yet still popular among her peers. She romanticizes about exploring worlds beyond the realm of London and goes to great extent to study neighboring cultures, particularly French. There are a few key figures in her life, outside of her parents, who have the most influence on her. Well at least until David comes along. First, there is her Literature teacher Miss Stubbs, played by Olivia Williams. She regards Jenny as her prized pupil, one who she holds to the highest expectations. She imposes this ideal upon Jenny that students like her are “the reason” why she is teacher. And that concept is what weighs on Jenny’s mind throughout all of her explorations. Emma Thompson also bears some significance on her as the Headmistress of Jenny’s school. She often is tasked with grounding Jenny’s whims and continuously reminds her of the importance of being an accomplished, educated young woman. It is these educators who serve Jenny in the most practical of ways, and remind us all of how underrated and unappreciated teachers often are.

Emma Thompson as the Headmistress, with Mulligan
There are a number of things that come to mind when you think about coming of age stories. And while this may fall under such a story category, it most certainly is not stereotypical. There is so much simplistic beauty in An Education, but the film is nonetheless palletized with complex situations and characters. As we watch Jenny grow before our eyes, our appreciation for our own life trials is heightened. Most everyone can remember what it was like to be sixteen. For some, it was a time for exploration, and for others, a time for establishment. But not many of us truly experience such a worldly erudition as Jenny does at that age. The lessons that she finds herself engulfed in cannot be found in any book or taught in any classroom. Both Scherfig and Hornby must have carefully considered this in their creative processes. Carey Mulligan’s turn as this impressionable and bewildered girl with this undeniable thirst for culture and knowledge is nothing short of remarkable. She absolutely blossoms on the screen. Mulligan embraces an image of innocence while flourishing in the circumstances of her new found “education”. And as we watch Jenny out on the town, attending concerts and going to fine restaurants rather than merely dreaming of it all from her bedroom floor whilst listening to Juliette Greco records, we too are educated. Cependant “Si tu t’imagines”—life doesn't always turn out as you imagine it.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
Bottom Line: A remarkably distinguished coming of age story that truly embodies the angst and emotional trauma of life's many lessons.

"You've Got Me Wrapped Around Your Little Finger" performed by Beth Rowley

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