REVIEW: An Education

25 11 2009

In the age of the booming blockbuster, independent cinema is in dire need of a movie that can appeal to a blooming generation of teenage moviegoers if sophisticated cinema is to survive.  I couldn’t be more pleased to report that “An Education” is that movie.  Although it is the type of movie that typically plays best with adults, it has the power to resonate among younger viewers unlike any movie of its kind.  Director Lone Scherfig’s clear understanding of the mind of teenagers radiates from as early as the opening credits, where sine graphs and frog diagrams devolve into hearts.  Thankfully, her vision is complemented by phenomenal performances and a sensational script that easily makes for one of the best moviegoing experiences of the year.

Jenny, the film’s heroine played with a stunning mastery by Carey Mulligan, is a character with struggles that people at crossroads in life can still appreciate many decades after the movie is set.  Sadly, she faces the same problem of creating a “college identity” separate from her regular identity that still plagues teenagers today.  Her parents (Alfred Molina and Carey Seymour) make sure that she has all the interests and hobbies necessary for her to fit the Oxford bill, obliging her to partake in activities that she loathes.  Through the process, Jenny begins to feel somewhat uneasy about going to spend four years doing something “hard and boring” with her nose in a book at a university only to end up in a “hard and boring” career for the rest of her life.  She reasons, however, to go against the grain would mean throwing away years of her life dedicated to looking impressive on an application, but still the desire remains for something beyond the education that a textbook can provide.

Almost as if an answer to an unspoken prayer, a chance encounter with the charming, older David (Peter Sarsgaard) gives Jenny a taste of a captivating world where the formalities of her schooling rank substantially below the proclivities for enjoyment.  Gradually, David’s outlook rubs off on Jenny, and she becomes willing to throw out what she has worked so many years for to enter the materialistic world that he inhabits.  For all those who think Jenny’s judgement is being impaired by an infatuation for love, what is she doing other than indulging a yearning that all students have had?  Her curious exploration into a very adult world ultimately leads her to a course she had never expected to be enrolled in – a crash course in adulthood.

Alfred Molina, Cara Seymour, Carey Mulligan, and Peter Sarsgaard in An Education

“An Education” is one of those rare gems that does not owe its success to one particular aspect; the whole film shines from all of its elements working together.  The one that glimmers the brightest, though, is Carey Mulligan, who cements her name in stardom with this performance.  She has drawn, and earned, comparisons to the great Audrey Hepburn.  The face and the hairdo bear a likeness, but I found that that the understated grace and poise that Mulligan gives to Jenny is what evoked Hepburn’s resemblance.  This knack, something seldom seen nowadays, gives her performance a very old-time feel and makes the movie a delight to watch.  But the real marvel of Mulligan’s acting is that the old-fashioned spirit does not make her character some kind of antique.  In fact, I found Jenny to be extremely relatable, the paradigm of how times change but the attitudes of teenagers do not.

Mulligan’s performance is bolstered by a terrific and numerous supporting cast.  Peter Sarsgaard is a delight and smooth as can be.  His acting doesn’t leave us drawing blanks as to why Jenny is so willing to abandon her former conception of where her life would go.  Olivia Williams and Emma Thompson are powerful with the little time they have as the two main opponents to Jenny’s new lifestyle.  The performance that will probably go criminally unheralded is Rosamund Pike as one of David’s companions.  She is the typical “dumb blonde” stereotype, but she brings her own flair to it in a way that makes the tired stock character seem brand new.  When she is on screen, you can’t help but grin.  However, among the ensemble, the real standout is Alfred Molina as Jenny’s father.  Despite being a stern authoritarian when it comes to educational matters, Molina brings an all-encompassing charm that lets us know that he cares for her greatly (but with the values of a fading generation).  His presence lends a warm feel to the movie that blends well with all the other pleasant sentiments the movie radiates.

Acclaimed novelist Nick Hornby (“About a Boy”) penned the film’s sublimely enchanting screenplay.  He acknowledges the gravity of the themes he presents but also packs his script full of wit.  In fact, the film has the feel of a serious comedy as supposed to a funny drama.  But the true achievement of “An Education” is not just entertaining audiences; it has the power to bring generations of moviegoers together.  A /

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4 responses

26 11 2009
madhatter21

Yes! It felt like all week everyone I knew was talking about how this film was good, but nothing to write home about.

SO glad that I’m not the only one who sees it for the subtle brilliance that it really is.

Great review, and great blog – you’ve scored yourself another loyal reader!

27 11 2009
Branden

Wow! This review makes me want to up my game. I agree with every point that you made, except for Rosamund Pike. You really liked her? I thought she was okay.

27 11 2009
Marshall

Well, I’m floored by your compliment!

I was just impressed by how you could just feel that Pike was doing something with this character that was particularly special. There was one shot of her while Jenny danced with her boyfriend at the race park that I was particularly taken by. She is kind of staring blankly forward, and then David looks back at her and she just gives this absent-minded shrug.

While Pike did an excellent job of drawing a contrast between her character and Jenny, she also shows that she has a leg up on Jenny in the adult world.

P.S. – Check out this feature on Pike from my friends at In Contention:
http://incontention.com/?p=10050

27 11 2009
madhatter21

@ Branden… I like the way Pike played her character. She’s supposed to be all carefree and bougois, but at the same time she’s totally dependant on her guy for means.

There’s a moment when the dude starts getting a tad too flirty with Jenny for almost everyone’s liking. Pike is amazing in this moment, because you can see on her face that she’s quite upset by this, but can’t say a word and rock the boat with her meal ticket.

She’s a cautionary tale for Jenny, and I’m not sure Jenny ever really noticed that.

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