22 November 2009

A Review of An Education

 Lots of spoilers.  Apparently I can't write a review without them.

I loved An Education before I even set foot in the theater.  I'd been seduced by the ubiquitous marketing, by my irrational adoration of Peter Sarsgaard, by the images of a waifish brunette running through Paris in fitted floral dresses, by the glamour Britain in the 1960s (both the stodgy plaid middle class towns and the swinging, smoky clubs).  I should have known better.  Did I learn nothing from Sylvia and Elizabethtown?  An Education is essentially an exercise in purposeless beauty.  

 Photo: Kerry Brown/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Carey Mulligan's Jenny is a precocious 16-year-old who has one goal in life: to read English at Oxford.  So she studies Latin, she plays the Cello, she is scolded for listening to frivolous French music, and she tolerates her overbearing parents who seem to exist only to continue pushing Jenny towards Oxford and/or the prospect of a future with a wealthy husband.  She peppers her speech with French, she exudes wide-eyed intellectual lust (I want to talk to people who know lots about lots!), and she is, in every sense, a very typical 16-year-old who fancies herself an old soul.  And she is very, very pretty. 

Photo: Kerry Brown/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Because all suburban teenagers think that they are missing out on life, Jenny gets immediately swept away when Peter Sarsgaard's charming swindler David takes an interest in her.   He takes her to fancy dinners with his attractive friends, auction houses to bid on favorite paintings, a soft-lit montage of a weekend in Paris.  And things progress very conventionally.  She falls for it - the dinners, the romanticism, the new clothes, the seductive ease of life with a suitor willfully footing the bill - and amidst all of this excitement, she's presented a choice between this perfume commercial of a life and the books, knowledge and faded beauty of her teacher and headmistress.  And in a strange and dismal 3rd act, she chooses marriage, realizes that David isn't who she thought he was, is deemed by most people a ruined girl and unable to re-enter her school.   She gets to Oxford eventually and we're to believe that she carries out the rest of her life hiding and denying the strange choices she made when she was 16 going on 17.

Meh.  In spite its beauty, its "shocking" older man/teenage girl affair (actually that was pretty unsettling), its exploration of class mobility and the laughable wisdom of teenage girls, I couldn't help but wonder WHY I was watching the film.   It was very well done loveliness, but Nick Hornby forgot to give us purpose.


NOTEWORTHY: The supporting performances are the best part of the film.  Alfred Molina as the priggish father.  Rosamund Pike as the dim playgirl.  I never realized how easy it is to overact when portraying the dumb blonde.  The wink, nudge, "I'm in on this" urge is too great to resist apparently.  But, in her wide eyed, earnest confusion, the gorgeous Miss Pike proves that acting like a real person conveys the unintentional humor of her character's idiocy in a much richer way than playing to the stereotype.  And, finally, of course Emma Thomson as the unforgiving headmistress.

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