Directed by Lone Scherfig
Written by Nick Hornby, based on material by Lynn Barber
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Peter Skarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Cara Seymour, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pyke, Olivia Williams and Emma Thompson.
An Education refers to the blossoming relationship between sixteen-year-old Jenny (Carey Muligan), a top student, aiming for a place a Oxford and David (Peter Sarsgaard), the charming, debonair and decidedly older man who gives her a lift home one raining evening. So begins one of the most thought provoking, challenging and utterly frustrating film experiences of the year.
Based on the personal essay by Lynn Barber and adapted by Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy), An Education is rapidly generating the kind of Oscar buzz that most films would sacrifice a limb for. Jenny is an average teenage girl in 1960’s London, her life being dictated to her by her overwrought if undeniably caring father (Alfred Molina) and her teacher (Olivia Williams). Everyone is expecting an Oxford education, but Jenny has other ideas.
David has money, sophistication, shows a keen interest in the arts and sweeps her off her feet. As he explains, sometimes the ‘school of life’ can be just as valuable as any classroom. Trips to Rome and Oxford itself ensue and David introduces Jenny to his friend and business partner Danny (Dominic Cooper) and his glamorous- although in no way academic – girlfriend Helen (Rosamund Pike). All the while as Jenny is being seduced by freedom and lack of restraint, something is not quite right.
Whilst on the surface, An Education appears to be a standard coming of age tale, and whilst it is, to merely label it as such does a great disservice to the intelligent script by Nick Hornby. As with About A Boy, Hornby has created a complex array of characters. Mulligan is excellent and at twenty-five, she plays sixteen with the conviction. Her transformation from wide-eyed ingénue to young woman anchors the film. She gives Jenny an undeniably political bent. Like a feminist well before it was fashionable, she questions the farcical situation she is in; encouraged to go to oxford simply to find a man (although the ‘right kind’ of man), when all this study and hard work could simply be replaced by trawling the bars at night. She even confronts the school principal (Emma Thompson) about the nature of an education, stumping her with the question of its real necessity.
The supporting cast are similarly superb. Peter Sarsgaard is disarmingly charming, often allowing you to forget he is at least twice Jenny’s age. Alfred Molina revels in the contrasts and humour of his role, with Cara Seymour complimenting him nicely as the easily impressed mother who David so effortlessly wins over. Olivia Williams is similarly nuanced, and her words of wisdom twice prove turning points in the film. The real scene-stealing turn however is Rosamund Pyke, whose airheaded Helen gives the film well timed lightness.
An Education is for the first ninety percent, the best film of the year, whilst the last ten does its best to undermine everything that came before. After being so inventive in playing with audience expectations, delivering laughs and thrills out of seemingly stale air, the last fifteen minutes are a train wreck. The tonal shift is more than disconcerting, it’s outright offensive and smacks of outside (read studio) interference. Director Lone Scherfig does little to stem the bleeding, instead allows one long unwelcome voice over, seeking to tie all of An Education’s beautifully woven threads into one big ugly knot. It makes you angry- because for so long An Education was breathtaking.
You will love this if: you want a refreshing breath of air, somewhat like a coming of age film with a twist of lemon.
You will hate this if: you don’t want to watch a filmmaker capitulate to ‘so-called’ audience expectations.
An Education is in wide release now.