November 22, 2009 -- “An Education” is sort of a modern costume drama. It is a lot like a Jane Austen story, except that it is set in more recent times and in this story there is actual sex. It is the kind of female coming-of-age story seldom seen in movies (although male coming of age stories are very common). It is all about the lack of opportunities for women in England in 1961 and one young woman's search for a life more challenging and exciting than most women could hope for at that time.
Jenny (played by Carey Mulligan) is a 16-year-old schoolgirl who works hard to get good grades so she can attend the University of Oxford. Her life is tightly controlled by her father, Jack (Alfred Molina of “The Hoax”) who tries to make sure his daughter has the right friends, the right hobbies and the right grades in the right subjects in order to be accepted at Oxford. In 1961, the social, cultural and sexual revolution of the 1960s had not yet begun in England (it also hadn't begun in much of America). England was still gripped by the numbing austerity and poverty of the post-war years. Into Jenny's life pops a charming rascal, David (Peter Sarsgaard of “Rendition”). David, 30, a slumlord, con man and sometimes thief, shows Jenny a kind of life she never knew existed, a life of nightclubs, art auctions, classical music concerts, and a trip to Paris. Jenny has a wonderful time hanging out with David and his friends, Danny (Dominic Cooper of “The Duchess”) and Helen (Rosamund Pike of “Die Another Day”).
David charms his way into Jenny's life and charms her parents, Jack and Majorie (Cara Seymour of “The Savages”) as well. He talks Jenny's parents into letting her go to Oxford and Paris with him. Jenny is also charmed enough by David to seriously consider marrying him. Jenny's parents, particularly her father would not ordinarily accept a Jewish man of 30, 14 years older than Jenny, as a proper suitor, but he is so obviously wealthy that they turn a blind eye toward all signs that he might not be such a good catch after all. In the end, Jenny gets a good education from the situation. She learns about herself and life.
The basic outline of the story is much like a costume drama. Jenny's parents are willing to allow her to marry a scoundrel for money. Jenny's options in life are limited to that of a housewife, a teacher, or a civil servant. In her discussions with her French teacher, Miss Stubbs, (Olivia Williams of “The Sixth Sense”) and her school's headmistress, (Emma Thompson of “Last Chance Harvey”) she discovers that their jobs are hard and they don't particularly like what they are doing all that well. She wonders if she should work hard studying latin if that is all she has to look forward to. This kind of narrowly-defined social role is very much like a heroine in a Jane Austen story might face. Interestingly, Carey Mulligan, who plays Jenny, once played a character (Kitty Bennet) who gets involved with a similar kind of scoundrel (Mr. Wickham) in a film based on a story by none other than Jane Austen (“Pride and Prejudice”).
Carey Mulligan, who is 24, looks a lot like the 16-year-old she is supposed to be, but acts older. She is said to have been 22 when this movie was filmed. She gives a very strong performance in this film. So does Peter Sarsgaard, who gives a wonderful performance as the smooth and charming David. Molina and Cara Seymour are very effective as the parents. The screenplay by Nick Hornby (“About a Boy” and “High Fidelity”) is very good. It is based on the memoirs of journalist Lynn Barber, so it turns out Lynn (Jenny in the film) had some more interesting options in life than she knew about in 1961, and she did get married 10 years later. Lynn Barber likes this film, too. So did I. This film rates a B+.
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