As you may have noticed, I haven’t written a new review since Avatar. My brilliant insights into films have been so very long-awaited by you, I know. And what better way to come back from my over-drawn break from writing than to review a three month old movie? I figure the best way to exemplify the situation at hand is to discuss An Education, a film that technically came out in October but has not had a very wide American release. Yet. Hopefully that will change with tomorrow’s nominations.
It is 1961 in Middlesex, England, and Jenny Miller (Carey Mulligan) is going to attend Oxford. Or so the sixteen year-old, with the domineering “encouragement” of her father, dreams before meeting David (Peter Sarsgaard), a charming older playboy. David shows Jenny a world of concerts, art, clubs, and late night suppers, which begin to overshadow the appeals of practicing French and reading literature. Slowly Jenny moves away from her bookishness and towards a more glamorous lifestyle, with the newfound belief that culture should be lived rather than studied.
The brilliance of An Education lies in its simplicity. It never over-dramatizes the story at hand. In fact, the film often cuts away from scenes that are worked towards, leaving the play out to the imagination of the viewer. Whereas many movies with similar storylines might have a make-over montage, contrasting a glasses-clad, ugly duckling Jenny with a contact-wearing, stunning swan, Jenny’s progress in this film was gradual and subtle.
Of course the growth of Jenny’s character was greatly aided by Carey Mulligan, whose outstanding performance has won her plenty of well-deserved accolades and award nominations. Never making Jenny into a victim, Mulligan is completely genuine, allowing the audience to trust and follow her character into the unknown. Peter Sarsgaard (whose English accent was, at times, questionable) also did a solid job of making his potentially caricatured and unlikeable David charming and believable. I oftentimes found myself buying into his condescension and manipulation, which made Jenny’s yearning to enter his world much more conceivable.
Now for the Flaw, for of course there has to be at least one in every film. An Education had fewer imperfections than most because it wasn’t trying to do more than it should. Its minimalism kept it near flawless except one mentionable faux pas: the end. An unexpected montage appears in the last few minutes of the film, clearing everything up nicely, with grand flourishes in the music and images of winter turning to spring. As if that wasn’t already out of place, it rapidly ends with a narration that was not heard at any other part of the film. It felt as though there were a different, perhaps darker, original ending that was then changed at the last minute in order to have a pleasant wrap-up. I would have very much liked to have seen a less hopeful ending, or at least a hopeful ending that fit with the rest of the film’s pace and style.
An Education is far from perfect or phenomenal. It is good. It has great acting by everyone involved, an inspired script by Nick Hornby, and solid direction. It focuses on real relationships and a real crisis, and none of it is over-done.
Fully aware that no older gentleman would have bought me flowers at my awkward age of sixteen,