E: I’m not sure why this movie has been so difficult for me to write about. I suppose it’s because it matters to me, and that makes me nervous. I want to build just the right castle with my words, to make you all want to seek shelter there. This movie deserves to be seen. And I suppose, in a way, that it’s fitting; An Education at its most basic is about the distance between easy and hard.
Precocious and pretty Jenny Miller likes to intersperse French phrases into everyday conversation. She’s almost appalling bright, dedicated and talented. Academics – except Latin – come so easily to her that they’ve become boring, even though there’s lots of intellectual pursuits that do fascinate her: French films, pre-Raphaelite paintings, and classical music. She’s Hermione Granger, sitting at a girls school while the English teacher begs for someone else to call on. She’s a good kid, and she knows it. She’s looking to stretch her wings. She’s looking to grow up already.
And that’s when charming David Goldberg drives by, and rescues her cello – and eventually her – from the rain.
David oozes sophistication. He drives a sports car (although, somewhat hilariously, I honestly couldn’t tell the difference between it and the family car) (C: Me neither.). He offers to take Jenny to a concert in London, and convinces her shocked and doubting homebody parents that it’s a good idea. He takes her out after, with his glamorous friends Danny and Helen. They take supper in a jazz club, and Jenny is enchanted. Soon she’s skipping school to watch Danny buy a Burne-Jones at auction, and trying on Helen’s glorious frocks in Danny’s palatial flat. Danny and David appreciate intellectual pursuits, though they’re not exactly experts in them; Helen (Rosamund Pike, never better) is a round-eyed Barbie doll with perfect hair and clothes, with graceful movements and manner and a singularly empty head. She immediately makes a pet of David’s latest girl, gives her clothes and teaches her how to wear her hair up. It’s a very sophisticated Holly Golightly, Audrey Hepburn look.
The family plan is for her to read English at Oxford; her father Jack (the excellent Alfred Molina) plans out her life and activities so she looks just well-rounded enough. It’s practical. It’s all about return on investment. Play the cello as a hobby, but don’t bother spending time cultivating a real skill; you don’t need to practice a hobby. Jenny senses a larger world with David, and helps him lie cleverly to her parents (claiming to go meet his “old tutor,” Clive Lewis) so they can spend a weekend in Oxford. She wants to explore the college; he and Danny want to steal objets d’art from houses marked for sale. It’s an ugly wake-up call, and she almost breaks it off (as much for Danny’s dismissive treatment of her as the crime itself). Even when David admits that he makes his money off of moving black people next door to racist old ladies and then buying out the flats at a cheap rate, though, she rationalizes. After all, Daddy says it’s all about money. This must just be how successful grown ups work. You can tell she knows better, but she wants to believe in the beautiful surface too badly, and David is so very persuasive. He wants what you think he wants, of course, but he makes it all seems like her idea.
When Jenny’s parents and her would-be boyfriend Graham both give her the same Latin dictionary for her birthday, and David arrives with jewelry and lovely clothes and (of course) a trip to Paris, is it any wonder that she’s drawn in? There’s a terrible fight – not, as there ought to be, over smooth, insinuating David – over Jenny’s low Latin test score. Her father rages about the expense of her private school, and the return on his investment, and how really she’s just going to Oxford to marry well. Jenny is crushed. She thought it was about being something on her own, you see.
So what’s a girl to do, when the charming older man proposes? I do wish someone had made an articulate case for traditional education. Not a better case, but a case at all. Olivia Williams plays Jenny’s English teacher, and Emma Thompson her headmistress; each urges her to stay in school, but they have no counter for her questions. Why am I deferring pleasure, she asks, by going to school, if all the work I can do is teach in a school afterward and be miserable like you? Why shouldn’t I eat lovely food, and talk about paintings, and see films and listen to jazz and travel? Isn’t that what I want to be doing in the end? Neither one answers. I’d love to sic my friend Kriz on Jenny; she’d have had her straightened out right quick. What no one tells her – but which underlies the action of the film – is that education means independence. Independence from her father’s boring bourgeois ideas and from romantic vagaries. With an Oxford degree, she’s not just getting a passport to an easier life. She’s getting the tools to make informed choices, and to strike her own path. It’s earned, not given. It’s the ability to create the kind of life she wants for herself, with no one else giving it to her (with all the strings that implies). In the words of a favorite author, she’s trying to skip the hard middle part. The hard middle part – working things through, learning who you are and what it is you really want (as opposed to what you think you want) – is the only way to get to easy.
An Education has received three Oscar nominations; one for best adapted screenplay (written by Nick Hornsby), one for Best Picture, and one for Best Actress for Carey Mulligan. I can’t quite believe it didn’t get a nomination for costume design; the clothes exude elegance. Jenny’s lavender patterned Parisian sheath, and her frothy cream frock with the bright orange along one strap – wow. (Although, I shouldn’t say it’s all glamorous; there’s plenty else that’s suitably frumpy.) Up in the Air has won the lion’s share of awards for adapted screenplay; this film is as beautifully observed. It’s touching and funny and wonderfully made, peopled with fantastic characters, and surely a good part of the credit must go to this fantastic script. Not that Up in the Air is unworthy, of course, although I find myself wondering exactly how it was considered an adapted screenplay. Somethings things seem to be more inspired by specific research, than really adapted. I digress.
The acting thrills. Delightfully giggly Cara Seymour absolutely convinces as Jenny’s mother. You look at her and see mannerisms and dimples, for heavens sake, that make you think “oh – that’s where Jenny got those!” – it’s unusually impressive for movie casting. Alfred Molina breaks my heart as the foolish father who wants the best for his daughter but doesn’t know what it is, and so doesn’t protect her when he could have. Sarsgaard and Cooper are both better here than in everything else I’ve seen them in – I’ll leave it to you to work out whether that’s more of a compliment to Sarsgaard, whose work I enjoy, or to Cooper, who I generally dislike. And Pike’s wide-eyed ignorance delights. If you read this space, you already know how sorry I am that Molina wasn’t nominated for an Oscar. I often find him overrated, but not here; he pulls off both overbearing and weak, imperious and flattered. Jenny isn’t alone in getting an education.
But oh, Carey Mulligan. I’ve mentioned this before – I’ve followed Mulligan’s career from Pride and Prejudice to Bleak House to Doctor Who (her Sally Sparrow helped make Blink the most frightening episode of that series by a mile) and Northanger Abbey. She’s incandescent. I could justify her losing to Meryl Streep, who is marvelous in Julie and Julia. But it is going to hurt a lot if – when – she loses to Sandra Bullock. I like Sandra Bullock, don’t get me wrong, and I think she’s undervalued from an awards standpoint. The Blind Side is a really enjoyable movie. But, but, but oh, you fall in love with Jenny Miller just as David does. She’s so full of taste and life and enthusiasm. She’s every meaning of the word bright.
An Education is unlikely to win Carey Mulligan an Oscar. What it ought to do, however, is make her a star. Go see it, and she’ll show you what it is to shine.