A fine example of an unremarkable film that is greatly elevated by its cast, Lone Scherfig’s retelling of British journalist Lynn Barber’s memoirs received considerable attention during the 2009 awards season. Treading in the well-worn footsteps of classic coming-of-age drama, the film will no doubt be best remembered for the breakout performance of one Carey Mulligan, launching the career of a talent more mature in mind than in years, a welcome change from the Lindsay Lohans of this world. Onscreen for almost 100% of the film’s running time, her outstanding acting is what propels the film and helps it across several potholes that would otherwise threaten to derail proceedings. In this regard an Oscar nomination for Best Actress was more than deserved.
Set in 1960s London, “An Education” tells the story of teenage girl Jenny (Mulligan), with her whole life built on schoolwork, instituted by her strict yet socially awkward father (Alfred Molina) who wants his daughter to attend Oxford University. Jenny’s fate takes a dramatic turn however when she meets the charming and much older David (Peter Sarsgaard). He presents to her an alluring if dangerous choice, offering a life of fun, escape, and introduced her to stylish couple Danny and Helen (Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike respectively), art, dinner clubs and, it seems, a much fuller life. Flouting her studies, her teacher (Olivia Williams) and her Oxford application, Jenny embraces this lifestyle, entranced by David’s endless riches and charms while increasingly aware that she is also being led into a world of deception, secrets and lies. Nick Hornby’s screenplay tries very hard to avoid the creepy images of a man taking advantage of a much younger girl and successfully manages this through long portions of the plot. And while it must ultimately confront the viewer with this truth, the film always lets you forget this before bringing the subject roughly into the foreground again. The social awkwardness penetrates all aspects of the characters however from the father – Alfred Molina, sublime as ever – who admires David almost as much as Jenny, to Rosamund Pike’s dim blonde who lives in a dream, albeit a first-class one.
As successfully as it presents these social mores however, “An Education” has nothing fresh to offer an old genre. In particular in the final third the film increasingly becomes an exercise at checking off all the cliches it can. Even viewers not well versed in these kind of dramas will be able to see where its going from the outset and not once does Scherfig make an attempt to step off this well-trodden path. There is no intent to surprise the audience, director and screenwriter satisfied to see its predictable conclusion through. Whether it’s a lack of ideas or simple laziness on their part we shall never know but the film’s sense of accomplishment is not as educating as it thinks itself to be. That said, “An Education” is more than bearable, held together Carey Mulligan in particular but by the whole cast, including a late appearance by the venerable Emma Thompson, yet another instance of fine British ensemble casting. For Dominic Cooper, the mysterious Danny allows him to make the leap from “Mamma-Mia” hunk to more serious dramatic actor. But really it’s crystal clear that the entire film is Carey Mulligan’s show. Her flowering Jenny is more than a little feisty but in the more reflective scenes she shows extreme maturity as an actress and it shows she is “the one” for a new generation of actors, a role that will see her becoming the next Emma Thompson or even, eventually, the next Judy Dench.
Much in keeping with “An Education’s” predictable nature is its original score provided by Paul Englishby. By all means pleasant, the score will however go unnoticed by most viewers, buried as it is, several miles beneath a layering of period songs. The songs which also dominate the soundtrack, are of course important in establishing the tone for the the film’s 1960s setting but it also means that Englishby’s contribution runs to just over ten minutes on the album. Taking a lead from Jenny’s musicianship in the film, the composer does integrate the cello into his music and the score is otherwise largely lead by a conservatively classic ensemble of strings, woodwinds and solo piano. In a way the score is at odds with the songs, representing perhaps the side of Jenny that is old-fashioned and resulting from the influence of her parents while the songs represent her more carefree and naive nature. It’s an interesting concept but leads to a very disjointed album experience with several score cues mixed in between the songs instead of forming the end of the album. Thus, it’s at best a pretty if average effort.
At the hands of a less-experienced and talented cast, “An Education” would have had its flaws more pointedly exposed. As it is, the film remains an enjoyable if very unsurprising effort that will make for relatively light viewing. But we must be extremely thankful to its makers for introducing us to the great Carey Mulligan.
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