I must start with a brief warning. This is ridiculously long. It is also rather vague at points in an effort to avoid spoiling too much, which is not particularly possible in any case. On the other hand, if you think that the experience of watching this movie could be ruined even if I told you everything that happens, then you should under no circumstances bother with it anyway… and there’s no point in reading the review.
An Education finds us in 1960′s London, when men were men and women went to University as a backup plan to finding a husband, and 16 year-old Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is doing her best to get to Oxford. Bright and witty beyond her years, her father (Alfred Molina) is not actually having a great deal of difficulty grooming her for her college admission, though he acts rather as though he were.
The majority of Jenny’s life is focused on her goal in one way or another. She plays the cello, because it looks good in the “hobby” box on the form. But, the complaints, which simply must be put forward under the circumstances, are largely for looks alone. Jenny is a student in the most glorious sense, and while she loves French music and other things that harrow her parents, she loves her Latin as well, and is as set on her goal and the unimaginable things she will learn as anyone.
Then one day Jenny meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), a 35 year-old with a love of music who finds Jenny’s intelligence captivating. You’d expect that line to come with a wink, but don’t sign off on David too fast. Sure, these two meet, do something vaguely like courting (you really have to use that word actually), fall in something that is sort of a suburb of love, and their ages are apt to throw some people, but David’s not a bad guy.
Well, we are going to come across some facts that are not on the positive side of the character sheet, but that’s not what I mean. That’s unclear by design, and it’s where I’m going to leave you on that score. Suffice it to say that you don’t want David hanging around with your daughter, but that’s just because you don’t know him. You still wouldn’t want him around your daughter if you did, but for different reasons.
The story progresses as Jenny and David slowly spend more time together. He takes her to hear great music, and out to fancy restaurants, and generally shows her the fabulous life of a man about town. A mid-life Artful Dodger of sorts, David is capable of manipulating Jenny’s parents, and getting them to give the go ahead to weekends away, and eventually a trip to Paris.
There is a very methodical timing to it all, both in how the two proceed by small degrees, and how their affair is presented to us. You don’t snatch at a person all at once and tell them to forget their dreams of University and all the plans they have for their life. If you told Jenny at the beginning that in a few short months she’d think about throwing it all away for… well, she’s not even completely sure what really, she’d have thought you were insane. No, it’s a little this here, and a tiny hint there. But, the truth is, he isn’t quite doing it to her anyway. It’s just what’s happening.
There’s a lot of focus on education (clever that), but the key comes early on when Jenny and David hardly know each other. She asks him about his education, and he says he went to, “What I believe they call the University of Life.” It’s a nice line, because he believes it, but more importantly because no one in film has ever said anything so true and false before. True, because he most certainly attended that school. False, because he ended up skipping class all the time, and was only bright enough to realize that he couldn’t quite figure out the lessons. He’s a smart guy, sure enough, and upon graduation he found himself, like many who fidget their tassels from one side of their hat to the other, in a position to make a good living, but what he really knows is that he doesn’t know. He knows all the things you’re supposed to know, and even genuinely likes all the things you’re supposed to like, but he doesn’t really “get” liking them.
David truly loves Jenny, in a sense that he understands, and there isn’t actually anything about their affair that is the kind of false you would put on a true cad. What he’s about is not a cheap thing. As much as you may be inclined toward thoroughly negative thoughts, and from a wide range of denominations, in the end that’s a lazy reading. Whatever we may discover eventually (or believe based on their ages, without having to discover anything), David cannot really be thought to be preying on Jenny. He’s really parasiting on her, if you want to call it something. The music is wonderful, and so are the mansions loaded with expensive knick-knacks, and the fine restaurants don’t hurt either, but it’s already David’s world and it doesn’t really do much for him, no matter what he says.
David’s heard the music, and collects the art, but there is a tinge of unreality to it for him. He likes it because he has decided to like it. Because the life he wants to live takes place in these circles. Jenny, on the other hand, gets excited by a rare cello, and exclaims that she loves the pre-Raphaelites like… well, like a giddy schoolgirl. David wants much from Jenny, and in a sense he wants nothing. As I say, he really does love her, after a fashion, and through it all what he really wants is simply to see what she sees. Knowing he never will, he is determined to at least be around for it.
David simply is not a student really, though he’s close enough to appreciate them like the amazing works of art they are. If he were a student, he’d have set himself up somewhere by now, what with the piles of money, and really be the guy he plays at. Maybe it turns out that he dropped out of that University after all.
But, Jenny is a student, and she loves and lives as only a student can. She is naive, and almost unapologetically 16, but she sees things, whether those things are what you are showing her or not. There are happy bits and unhappy bits, and after a while they are more or less the same. Things you learned. There are times that your plans get pulled out from under your feet, and suddenly your whole life is going to have to be quite a bit different than you thought. Some things much harder. Some things possibly a little easier. You laugh. You cry. You want to die. But, after a bit of time has passed, if you’re a student, you realize it was a small price to pay… for an education.
Too much cannot be said for just about everyone involved with this film. Based on the real events (to a degree I am in no way sure of) of Lynn Barber, the story is adapted from her memoir by Nick Hornby (Fever Pitch, High Fidelity, About a Boy), and there is no one you’d rather have working this story. The dialog and arc are perfect. You’d also be hard-pressed to find a better director than Lone Scherfig who, among other things, directed Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself and Italian for Beginners. Italian for Beginners, by the way, is also known as Dogme #12, and if you know what that means, you knew the fact before I mentioned it. The point there is that this film needs someone with some feel for more avant-garde theories, because the story has to play out in a certain way to portray these characters so well.
Peter Sarsgaard works David in a way that is just about beyond reproach, and Alfred Molina is wonderful as Jenny’s father, but they are both unsurprising in being as solid as you knew they would be anyway.
In this case, there is only Carey Mulligan, and it’s a good thing she is so amazing, because without the perfect Jenny the film would crumble. Every line, every display of emotion, and every silent facial gesture, all of it, is so perfect it’s hard to describe. She delivers this girl, considering the fact that this is a real girl, in a way that makes it genuinely difficult to forget that she isn’t this girl. Moreover, she relays a likability that is impossible to ignore. One wrong move, and this character loses her strength, her charm, and virtually all of her reality, and there just isn’t one.
As soon as the chatter from Sundance started flowing, I couldn’t keep track of the times Audrey Hepburn was mentioned, and review after review kept it going for months. If this effort is any judge, forty years from now some young actress is going to hit the scene, and they’re going to be calling her the next Carey Mulligan.
It’s the best movie of the year (barring any truly astounding miracles), and it isn’t a close race.
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