An Education (2009)

2011 #51
Lone Scherfig | 100 mins | Blu-ray | 12 / PG-13

An EducationIt seems that every year, come Oscar season, there’s a British-made film we’re led to back so thoroughly that it gains nothing but incessant praise from every (British) quarter. Just to look at recent years, from the 2006 selection it was The Queen; from 2007, Atonement; and at the awards for 2008 and 2010 we were actually backing the big winner, Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech respectively. I’m not going to say any of these films support my next point, but it often feels like the Great British Hope is being over-praised. Everyone here gets so caught up in Oscar fever that the one British film with a chance becomes The Greatest Film Ever Made for a couple of months, then when viewed with a steady head months or years later it often turns out to be good, but not that good.

An Education was the Great British Hope of 2009. It could’ve had Best Actress, or Adapted Screenplay, or even Best Picture… but unlike The Queen, Atonement, Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech, it didn’t take home a single award. “How could they neglect such a masterpiece,” I’m sure some Brit with Oscar fever cried. Particularly when they gave Best Actress to Sandra Bullock. So we know what to expect when viewed 14 months after its Oscar ceremony was held, with an appropriately steady head… but, actually, it turns out that An Education is — to use a properly British expression — bloody good.

Jenny meets DavidBased on a true story, the film tracks 1960s schoolgirl Jenny (Carey Mulligan) as she falls for an older man (Peter Sarsgaard) who represents a culture- and glamour-filled escape from her drab suburban life and its focus on getting a place at Oxford. It’s a romance and a coming-of-age tale, albeit one with a more naturalistic bent than your regular offering; more down-to-Earth and British than either something Hollywoodised or American-indie-fied. There are, perhaps, few massive surprises in the plot — anyone who doesn’t guess this won’t end well has somehow failed to encounter a “schoolgirl falls for glamorous older man” story before — but Nick Hornby’s screenplay and Scherfig’s direction execute it all with admirable conviction. You don’t feel like you’re watching something familiar.

Plus, Jenny’s induction into her new friends’ higher-class world isn’t marred by the usual abundance of “embarrassing faux pas” humour that such tales normally fall back on. I’ve never understood where the entertainment value is supposed to lie in seeing the character we’re asked to like being put through the kind of social embarrassment that happens all too often in real life and that we’d really rather like to forget. Perhaps it’s only missing here because these characters have to like Jenny throughout the film, rather than abandoning her as an inexperienced little girl after just one scene; but whatever the reason, thank heavens for it.

ParisI’ve read some complain there’s no ending. I can only presume they walked out of the cinema or stopped their DVD before the film reached, y’know, the end. Sometimes I appreciate how people can criticise the lack of an ending, even when I disagree (see: In Bruges), but not here. An Education shows us all we need to see and comes to the conclusions it needs to come to, no more.

The ’60s are wonderfully evoked with an excellent use of locations — the sequence in Paris stands out, using landmarks and recognisable locations without once letting on it was shot almost 50 years late —, costume design, and some intermittently stunning photography. The last isn’t to say it doesn’t all look great, just some bits really pop out. Credit to DoP John de Borman, then, for making Jenny’s school and home life appear drab and stifling and her new-life seem glamorous and fun, without slathering either on too thick or making the difference glaringly obvious.

Carey MulliganThe film hangs on Carey Mulligan, justly nominated for her performance. Quite aside from whether the performance is awards-worthy or not, it’s effortlessly watchable. Mulligan is exceptionally easy to fall in love with — if you haven’t already when she was Ada Clare or Sally Sparrow, I’m sure Jenny Mellor will enchant you. On the other hand, some have found her character too pretentious or naïve — maybe your own background will dictate if you see these negative traits. Jenny is probably a little of both, but I wouldn’t say she’s wholly naïve and I wouldn’t say she’s pretentious, exactly — she’s clever, and she wants to experience the world. What’s wrong with that?

The whole cast are uniformly excellent, mind. Alfred Molina’s scene-stealing oppressive/comedic dad is the most obvious contender, but Olivia Williams is also memorable in a relatively tiny role, and Emma Thompson makes an effective cameo as the authoritarian headmistress. Rosamund Pike is also noteworthy for playing against type as vacuous-but-kind Helen, mercilessly teased by her ‘friends’ but sadly aware that she’s not keeping pace with them, despite her efforts. That Jenny is so clearly her intellectual superior but still takes advice from her and doesn’t sink to the boys’ teasing is an additional credit to that character. Plus there’s Dominic Cooper, the new James McAvoy in terms of the sheer volume of films he pops up in. Surely he’s now only a Last King of Scotland away from McAvoy-level stardom?

Meet the parentsIt’s slightly remiss of me not to mention Peter Sarsgaard, what with him being the other half of the film’s romantic relationship. He’s good, his Colin Firth-esque accent pitch-perfect, but while he’s spot on in the part — absolutely no complaints — I can’t think of any scenes where there isn’t someone else (usually Mulligan or Molina) grabbing the spotlight.

As noted, this was in danger of being of those films that aren’t as good as everyone said — the kind of British film where everyone jumps on the bandwagon of Our Oscar Contender and smothers it with undue praise — but An Education manages to withstand all that. It’s an excellent film, liable to provoke a beautiful kind of envy or faux-nostalgia (depending on one’s own (lack of) experience of the worlds and times Jenny gets to see); and even if it doesn’t, it remains funny, moving and, even if you feel you may’ve heard a similar story before, rather truthful.

5 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of An Education is on BBC Two and BBC HD tomorrow, May 13th, at 8:30pm.

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