An Education Review


“An Education” is a brilliant coming-of-age story in 1960’s England. A clever, pretty young girl named Jenny (Carey Mulligan in a star-making performance) learns the true value of a woman’s education and the heartbreaking consequences of taking shortcuts. It’s a fascinating film that’s well-written and brilliantly acted and should be in line to take home a number of awards come March.

Jenny is a 16-year-old girl who is steadfastly preparing to take her university entrance exams. She gets top marks in most of her classes, making her a possible candidate for Oxford. Enter David (Peter Saarsgard): an older man who charms his way into Jenny’s life. Her parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) think he might provide Jenny with a suitable alternative to college (which is an expensive way to find a husband), and Jenny loves expanding her cultural horizons with David and his friends, Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike). But of course, David is not everything he seems, and as Jenny learns more about him, she learns some valuable lessons and gets educated in the ways of the world.

“An Education” features the best ensemble work of any film I’ve seen this year, but it all starts with Carey Mulligan’s phenomenal work as Jenny. For someone who’s been in very few films, this is incredible work. Mulligan’s Jenny is a spunky girl, someone who’s both naïve and very worldly. She’s quite clever, as seen in the very funny scene in which she outlines her father’s circular logic regarding her Oxford application. She’s such a likeable young girl that we really feel for her when everything starts crashing down. Mulligan handles it all spectacularly. The Audrey Hepburn comparisons are apt.

Her work is only enhanced by the tremendous supporting work. Alfred Molina spends most of the film being hard on Jenny, but in one late scene, when he admits his fears and shortcomings to his daughter, we see just how much he loves and cares for her. He also provides the film with some welcome humor. Peter Saarsgard, master of subtlety, gives a career-best performance as David, a man who is not who he seems but may be more in love with Jenny than anybody realizes. Olivia Williams and Emma Thompson are Jenny’s English teacher and headmistress respectively. Both roles are underwritten, but the two women are memorable.

The screenplay comes courtesy of Nick Hornby, who also wrote About a Boy and High Fidelity. He is adapting from the memoirs of writer Lynn Barber. There is a surprising amount of humor, mostly generated by Jenny and directed at her father. But her situation with David is not humorous at all. It is handled with the seriousness necessary for the tale of a girl who may or may not be ruining her life. Director Lone Scherfig, a graduate of the Dogme school of film, balances the two perfectly.

“An Education” speaks to the role of women in 1960s society, while also commenting on the value of a woman’s education. With the options for women limited to teaching or civil service, maybe it is better to marry and be taken care of, as Jenny’s father suggests. Or maybe it is more important to be able to make your own way in society, even if you have to sacrifice some of the things you’ve always wanted, as we see with Miss Stubbs, Jenny’s English teacher. For everything cinematically that “An Education” does well (the acting, writing, music, direction), it goes beyond cinema, as only great films do, and is capable of generating a thoughtful discussion.

What are the Oscar chances of “An Education?” With ten slots for Best Picture, it should be a shoo-in. Lone Scherfig is likely to garner consideration for Best Director, but Kathryn Bigelow seems to be over-shadowing her in the race for the likely lone female slot. Carey Mulligan is a lock for a Best Actress nomination, and probably the front-runner. Peter Saarsgard and Alfred Molina will both get Best Supporting Actor consideration. Nick Hornby is certain for a screenplay nod. And the art direction, costumes, and music are all noteworthy.

“An Education” has gotten a slow roll-out, but with all the awards it is likely to pick up over the next few months, it will likely get a wider release soon. Check it out while you can. It’s easily one of the year’s best.

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