by Lone Scherfig
|Rain-soaked Jenny with Cello|
Sixteen-years-old Jenny Miller (Oscar-nominated Carey Mulligan), caught with her cello in a rainstorm, accepts a ride home from a charming stranger, David Goldman (Peter Sarsgaard), in his hand-built, late-1950s Bristol 405 luxury sedan--an encounter that begins a careful, slow-cooking romance that would make a crock pot proud. Set in boring early-1960s suburban London, Jenny's aspirations, imbued with a precocious, refined cultural literacy, are already at odds with her father's (Alfred Molina) vague yet specific ideas of how his daughter should set about getting into Oxford, a feat that eluded him by a safe margin. An Education is Jenny's journey to find the proper place for her newfound self amongst her family's, friends', and mentors' ideas of where and who she should be.
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Please see the film before reading further
|Jenny and David's First Date|
David seduces Jenny with both, sincerity, and the accouterments of a wealthy, handsome, 30-something man. David beguiles Jenny's parents, who are accustomed to intimidating Jenny's inexperienced suitors, slathering promises they come to believe as the better life for their daughter. Escalating outings to first a classical music concert and upscale jazz club (dinner with Aunt Helen, as far as her parents know), a trip to Oxford University (they see only Oxford the town, bringing back a forged C.S. Lewis-signed book as evidence to a university visit), then her dream 17th birthday celebration in Paris.
|Jenny, Now a Woman|
As their relationship progresses, Jenny's dress and hair become refined and upswept, respectively, revealing her slender body and neck reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn's Holly Golightly. Returned to the reality of school and home, her dress reverts to thick, earth-toned fabrics and school uniforms, with her long hair hanging straight down, bangs nearly hiding her eyes. Though a seemingly banal choice for Lone Scherfig, the motif distinction reminds us she is living two very different worlds. Though, would it not have been better for Jenny's at-home appearance to reflect her relationship's increasing seriousness?
|(L to R) Danny, Helen, David, Jenny|
On their first date, Jenny meets David's friends: his business partner Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Danny's chic girlfriend Helen (Rosamund Pike). Though Jenny takes immediately to the music venues and to the two men, her parallel, and possible future self, Helen, is a happy, incurious mannequin. As staying with David comes to mean abandoning university training, is Jenny destined to become another Helen, or will she be different?
|Paris--The Film's Look Changes|
Once the couple reaches Paris, director Lone Scherfig delivers a sun-drenched color palette, showing the wonder and brilliance of Jenny's mood. In a short Paris-spanning montage, Scherfig gives us nouvelle vague Godardian jump-cuts, telling us Jenny is bathing in all the culture Paris offers a thirsty Paris virgin: books, film, romance... Paris is everything she imagined it would be! Jenny's joy reminds us of when her father chastised her for listening to French songs because "French singing wasn't on the syllabus last time I looked!" She has escaped her dreary upbringing, and David soon asks for her hand in marriage, in a dog track parking lot, sans ring. Something is amiss--David's usual debonair manner is betrayed by his unforgivably immature action.
|Jenny unknowingly insults David|
Other earlier, small elements of David's behaviour would have tripped alarm bells in most women, but not in a girl. David announces their pet nicknames, something that normally happens a bit more naturally. David presents banana-as-sex-toy. His source of income is sleazy at best, and hints at illegality. Since Jenny is in every scene, we do not expect to see David home alone, but we also never see Jenny at his home. Lynn Barber, the real-life Jenny and author of the book An Education, never knew where he lived, nor had his phone number, and never seemed much interested. Though too common for alarm bells, David seems most comfortable plying his apparent lack of sexual stamina on the ignorant.
|English Teacher, Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams)|
Jenny's support network is insufficient to protect her from the pitfalls of her May-December romance. Her parents' malleable principles, her friends' swooning over her travels, and her teacher's and headmistress's inabilities to communicate properly their concerns, leave Jenny to find her way alone, without third-party advice. She shuns them all, choosing a life with David, but not before delivering fair challenges to her teacher Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams) and headmistress (Emma Thompson, whose three brief scenes nearly steal the movie). All that clever and pretty Miss Stubbs has won with her education was a plowing through of illiterate essays on ponies. The headmistress fairs no better, seeing Jenny's degree-holding future as either a high school teacher or civil servant. Her arguments unchallenged, Jenny quits school and chooses David's excitement.
Scherfig's camera work, wardrobe, and set dressers create an attractive film that very subtly assists in telling the story and its mood--and we want to visit it! Jenny, fuming over David and Danny's theft of an antique map, and having endured the getaway, exits the car at their Oxford hotel, walks away from the hotel with great purpose. She is leaving David. The camera follows David's on-foot pursuit of her. Scherfig chooses to use a handheld camera for the first time. As Jenny's confidence in David has been shaken, so too does the camera shake--a subtle, mood-enhancing effect. By then, Scherfig has placed David and Helen on the hotel suite's balcony, champagne fluted and flowing. The camera shows them looking down at mended couple, then cuts to Jenny's point-of-view: Jenny looking up to them, returning to the literally lofty life of David & Co.
Scherfig frequently uses zoom lenses, showing the audience on whom we should be focused at any one moment in a scene. I do wish she had chosen greater depth of field, trusting our judgement to select whom to watch when. Zooming lenses usually distract and distort.
Nick Hornby's (About a Boy (2002), High Fidelity (2000)) script is crisp, sensitive, and efficient. The arc and pacing of the film, including the arcs within scenes, are masterful. Hornby gives us beautiful conversations, sharp repartee, well-timed humour, and memorable lines from numerous characters. Scherfig gives us telling scene transitions early. After David first gives Jenny a ride through a downpour, then, having spent mere seconds with David, Jenny exits the car at her home--the rain has stopped. Their meeting has given Jenny hope, clearing away the gloom of her life. As she exits the car, Juliette Gréco's (French) music plays, making us hear Jenny's passion and hopes. Scherfig keeps the musical track while cutting to Jenny listening to the music on a record player. Interrupted by her father who wants to hear the sound of sweat hitting the pages of books, he insists she return to her studies. Cut to a family dinner scene with a nervous suitor her age, Graham (Matthew Beard), and then cut to Jenny discovering a sophisticated flower bouquet on her doorstep. Very quickly Hornby and Scherfig have introduced David to Jenny, have shown us that David is Jenny's sunshine, that her father stifles, that boys her age are insufficient, and that Jenny likes how David woos her with beautiful, fancy things. She is enamored, and we understand why.
|The Sun, Setting on Paris|
An Education's denouement left me a bit disappointed. Jenny, having lost a year in school, returns, passes her exams, and, once enrolled at Oxford, dates boys her age. One boy suggests they someday go to Paris. She responds in narration, "I said I'd always wanted to see Paris. (I said it) As if I'd never been!" One's interpretation of the last line determines if this is a really good film or a great film.
After having made such a fuss about lacking wisdom, Jenny seems to pretend that David never happened. Though she seems to have learned and healed, she also somehow seems to ignore her history, an approach that will fail to summon wisdom.
Many classic films have longstanding cachet because they end uniquely and fittingly. Though Lone Scherfig crafts a brilliant film for the first ninety minutes or so, the last ten may doom it to historical irrelevance, a shame for such an otherwise exceptional movie.
An Education (trailer)