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Can Anything Be Learned from An Education?

February 19, 2010
An Education

Carey Mulligan plays a teenager who falls in love with a posh older man (Peter Saarsgard) in An Education.

Despite our shared language, communication between Britain and the U.S. sometimes gets lost in translation. Take An Education. Written by superstar British novelist Nick Hornby, the film asks us to buy that a straight-A Christian school girl (Carey Mulligan) gunning for Oxford falls instantly for a wealthy 30-something man (Peter Saarsgard) who won’t speak about his work or bring her to his home. As an American, I found her gullibility galling, and hardly in character for a girl of such eloquence and supposed intelligence. But the key to the sell is in the setting.

The film takes place in 1961, a time looked back by Brits as the tail-end of an era of numbing drabness and lingering Victorian repression. As Mulligan’s Jenny says later in the film, “This whole stupid country is bored. There’s no life in it, no color in it, no fun.” Given the context, who wouldn’t take a chance on a sports-car-driving dandy promising classical concerts and art auctions? For a Briton imagining life in her country at that time, Saarsgard’s David must come across as a breath of fresh air. To me, he was simply full of hot air.

The film never persuaded me that pre-Beatles England was the cultural straightjacket Jenny says it is. Sure, school is stifling, and her parents are obsessed with getting her into a good university, but what’s so culturally specific about that? If the cultural context doesn’t explain the disconnect between Jenny’s smarts and her actions, what does? Foolish teenage behavior, one could argue, but that would suppose that director Lone Scherfig wants us to maintain a critical distance from Jenny’s and David’s affair. She doesn’t. She wants to seduce.

In her single-minded effort to get us to identify with Jenny, Scherfig employs all the typical tools of cinematic enchantment: long, slow-motion scans across a high-end nightclub, with a torch song providing background; a montage of Paris’ most romantic sights to describe a weekend trip to the City of Lights; a pan-and-zoom from rumbling dogs at a racetrack to Jenny breathlessly declaring her ticket has won. The goal is to get the viewer to fully buy into David’s posh allure, so that we will be as devastated as Jenny is when their romance inevitably ends.

As these sequences suggest, much of the blame for the film’s failure to seduce lies in the unimaginative screenplay. While three of Hornby’s previous books have been adapted for screen, this is his first stand-alone script. His lack of comfort with the form shows. Several of the didactic monologues sound nothing like real speech (“This is who we are,” says David, when he explains to Jenny the source of his money), and the last 10 minutes of the film are simply a narrative disaster.

The casting is equally problematic. The part of David requires an actor who can convince us he’s charming enough to win over Jenny’s conservative, skeptical parents. Saarsgard is a fine actor, but his skill isn’t charm, it’s smarm. Whatever trust is projected by his soft smile is betrayed by the deadness in his eyes. Saarsgard has played too many transparently slimy characters for me to see David as anything more than the snake-oil salesman he turns out to be.

Mulligan is terrific, almost too good actually. Snapping off zingers like a British Ellen Page, she practically oozes intelligence. Paradoxically, a lesser actress might have made Jenny’s credulousness more credible. As her parents, Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour make the best of a script that asks them to behave in wildly inconsistent ways. Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike are convincingly glamorous as David’s shallow best friends, while Emma Thompson and Olivia Williams go full-frump as Jenny’s teacher and headmaster, respectively.

Through the muck of cliché and miscasting, a few fine moments stand out. Jenny’s first night undressing in front of David is filled with all the awkwardness, excitement, fear and tenderness that mark real first encounters between young lovers. As long as matters are kept light—and they are for most of the film—the screenplay shows off Hornby’s ample talents at clever, amusing dialogue. “It’s funny,” declares Jenny after losing her virginity. “All that poetry and all those songs, about something that lasts no time at all.”

If An Education has a saving grace, it’s Mulligan. One can’t begrudge her for failing to dumb down her performance to the level of Hornby’s screenplay. In both looks and talent, she’s mindful of Jennifer Jason Leigh, minus the cynicism. David may not seduce in the way the filmmakers intended, but I was more than happy to be bewitched by Mulligan.

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