30 Second Review: An Education

30 Second Review: An Education
directed by Lone Scherfig, released October 16, 2009 (USA limited release date)

Most likely, you didn’t see An Education in the theatres, given that it had a very limited release here in the USA.  That’s a shame but easily remedied, now that An Education has been released on DVD and Blu-Ray – and you definitely shouldn’t hesitate viewing it at your earliest convenience.

Yes, it’s a British film about a spirited young woman who learns the hard lesson that fairy tales rarely come true – at least fairy tales that are easily recognized.  But what makes this film exceptional is how restrained it is (note: restrained, not repressed).  We don’t get grandiose situations or overwrought scenes.  There is drama here, and pathos, but while there are impassioned speeches and touching moments, they feel as if they come from the heart rather than being crafted for epic quotes.  When the inevitable occurs, we recognize it from our own experiences in our own lives rather than as some theatrical manipulation.  This film doesn’t tug at our heartstrings; rather, our hearts recognize the film as familiar territory at its most elemental level.

The story is simple:  its 1960s suburban London, and 16 year old Jenny is chafing at her middle class life.  Intelligent, pretty and talented, most of her efforts (with the constant prompting of her parents) are geared towards gaining admission to Oxford.  But while Jenny accepts the inevitability of continuing her studies, she yearns for experience – travel, art, music, love.  Enter, then, David, a charmer twice Jenny’s age, who befriends her and ushers her into cultured society replete with fine art, exquisite music, smoky cabarets and ornately beautiful people.  His friends are fun, lovely, and worldly, and Jenny is swept into the type of life she’s always dreamed of.  But as time goes by, cracks appear in the veneer of David’s world, and Jenny must decide how far she wishes to follow him as the dream unravels.

Lone Scherfig directs An Education with a light and deft touch.  There is nothing heavy handed in this film, and yet there is also nothing flighty.  Jenny’s family is not destitute, but they are not well off, either (nor particularly enlightened).  Jenny herself, although written with a wicked wit, is not caustic nor a wise-crack; she’s a “good girl” who’s rebelliousness tends to run only as deep as smoking cigarettes and listening to records of French chanteuses when she should be studying.  David is not portrayed as a scheming pedophile, but as a man who genuinely is drawn to Jenny’s vivacity and joie de vive (“She’s the one,” he declares to his friend, and I swear there were tears in his eyes when he revealed this, even as the line was tinged in desperation).  Even the shallowness that does occur in the film is something we easily recognize as a common part of life.

The acting is absolutely top rate.  Much has been made of Carey Mulligan as Jenny, and the accolades and awards are well deserved.  She captures the right spirit of a young girl coming of age in a rarefied and evocative situation, with a genuineness that is always spot on.  She has a disarming charm, and a beauty that is not overwhelming but is ever present.  Peter Sarsgaard plays David with an openness that defuses our own defensiveness against what we fear he will become.  Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike as David’s friends are beautiful set dressings that lend a surprising emotional backdrop for the events that unfold, insofar as what is not said rather than what is.  Olivia Williams plays against type and does a marvelous job as a staid teacher who never gives up on Jenny, and Cara Seymour as Jenny’s mother gives us glimpses of spirit under her conventional housewife demeanor that hints at where Jenny gets her passion.  But my favorite performance was by Alfred Molina as Jenny’s pedestrian father; he sees Oxford as a means for Jenny to better herself and her circumstances, regardless of any intrinsic value that goal may have, and he’s more than willing to abandon that goal when something easier – and cheaper – seems to come along.  The character could have easily been laughable in its gullibility, but Molina plays it deftly that showcases his best of intentions rather than his middle class limitations.

Ok, so maybe this is a 2 minute review rather than a 30 second one, but this film deserves its due.  At first, I was worried about seeing it with my daughter (who is the same age as Jenny, but not quite as worldly) but my fears were unwarranted.  While adult situations do occur, they are handled honestly and delicately, as should be the case when a young girl’s psyche is as stake.  And while we know that there will not be a happily-ever-after for Jenny, we are not left is a state of despair, either.  After all, real life rarely falls under either of those two categories but instead lies somewhere in between, and An Education indeed does feel less like a movie, and more like a glimpse into a very real life.

I rate it an A+, all the way.  Rent it, buy it, SEE it.  You’ll go a long time before seeing another film that rings this true.

~ by arcticwren on May 5, 2010.

3 Responses to “30 Second Review: An Education”

  1. Great review. I saw this on the “big screen” for $2 at the Riverview. A friend just told me to see it again with my daughter. I went alone the first time; I was hesitant to bring my 16 year old without checking it out first.
    One of my favorite scenes or lines in the movie is at the end when she is bit older and chooses to edit her experiences when meeting someone new. I think she protects herself and demonstrates a great deal of maturity – it takes a while to know the difference between secrecy and privacy.

  2. I definitely need to see this one. Maybe I’ll take a look at the Red Box this weekend. Thanks for the great review!

  3. I’ve been wondering about this movie. Nice review. Thank you for sharing it.

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