Thursday, May 6, 2010
Film Review: "An Education"
A film review by Jordan Overstreet
"Educate me, my sweet educator, you." While Gershwin maybe doing cartwheels in his grave, Lone Scherfig's new film "An Education" is doing cartwheels in the minds of audiences across the country. Set in the 1961 England, this 'coming of age' film follows Jenny (Carey Mulligan in an Oscar nominated role) as she embarks on a journey of self-discovery through her relationship with an older man, David (Peter Sarsgaard). As Jenny grows out of her humble school-girl upbringing and into a chic Audrey Hepburn-esque young woman, (which is exquisitely depicted in Odile Dicks-Mireaux's costuming), she begins to wrestle with the question that everyone eventually finds themselves pondering--what is the meaning of life?
One of the fossils left behind from the grandeur of the Golden age in Hollywood, is he student-teacher formula. It has been reproduced, reinvented, and rejuvenated for decades. The 1960's brought us Doris Day who wanted to be Clark Gable's "Teacher's Pet." The 1970's ushered in a new era of sexual promiscuity on film with Mrs. Robinson's iconic seduction of Dustin Hoffman in "The Graduate." Fast forward to the 1990's and the student-teacher formula has been repackaged to fit Robin Williams in "Dead Poet's Society." The teacher began as merely a complication in Doris and Gable's meet-cute, however the teacher has journeyed to the bedroom and with this knowledge of sexuality, has returned to the classroom to educate the student on the value of life. Thus, “An Education” begins.
Supported by a brilliant cast including Olivia Williams and Emma Thompson, as the film unfolds, we learn that at the ripe old age of 16, Jenny’s life begins and ends with the question of her acceptance to Oxford. Jenny allows this (and everyone else for that matter) dictate every action. When Jenny proposes ending her cello lessons and doing something she actually likes, her father (Alfred Molina) laments, “What would Oxford think?” The only escape Jenny has is her Juliette Greco vinyl record and her dreams of one day entering the Parisian high life.
Enter David (Sargaard), an older, mature vagabond, in a red roadster. Unlike the other love interest in Jenny’s life, a pimply peer, David is different; he lives the high life. As a graduate of the “University of life,” David shows Jenny the life she so desperately wants--free from the demands of others. Sarsgaard simply shines in his role as this wayward adulterer. Unlike his previous work, Sarsgaard brings depth to a very two-dimensional character. Too many times, Sarsgaard chooses roles that suppress his talents and limit him as an actor. However, his David is his best work yet.
When they meet for the first time, David asks, “Do you go to concerts?” Jenny replies, “no, we don't believe in concerts;” however David asserts, “oh, I assure you, they're real.” For Jenny, David is an escape from the humdrum existence she has experienced. He offers her a chance to live and she takes it.
While Jenny experiences the world, she does so through David’s lens an Oxford becomes a dream of a silly schoolgirl. On a trip to Oxford with David and his friends, Danny and Helen (played by Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike), the college life pales in comparison to what Jenny experiences with David. Pike plays a terrific foil for Jenny in her presentation of the wise fool Helen, who is knowledgeable about sex but when it comes to literature, she is a complete idiot. When Jenny reveals she has gotten a “B” in her Latin class, Helen consoles her and states, “someone told me that in about 50 years, no one will speak Latin, probably. Not even Latin people. “ Helen’s idiotic statements are just one of many witty lines penned by screenwriter, Nick Hornby (“About a Boy”). Hornby’s greatest lines of dialogue are uttered during a heated exchange between an engaged Jenny and her headmistress, Mrs. Walters (Thompson.)
Jenny’s internal conflict morphs itself into a reality when Jenny must choose between David and her education. When called into Mrs. Walter’s office, Jenny articulates the struggle for women during this era--what good is a formal education? Mrs. Walters asserts that Jenny will get nowhere without a degree and that obtaining one is boring and hard, but she still has to do it. Jenny then in turn argues why should life be spent doing things that are boring and hard; moreover, when Mrs. Walters fails to respond to Jenny, she asserts, “It's not enough to educate us anymore Ms. Walters. You've got to tell us why you're doing it.” Unfortunately for Jenny, she will learn soon enough the reason for education.
Upon discovering his marriage to another woman, Jenny breaks off her engagement with David. We learn that like Jenny, David too wanted to escape the demands of his own life when Scherfig introduces David’s first wife. This dissolution of their relationship puts Jenny at the mercy of Mrs. Walters, who notes “You are not a woman.” However, Jenny’s education comes not from the lips of David but from the help of her mousey English teacher, Miss Stubbs (Williams). Williams always delivers a strong performance and her work in “An Education” is no different. Behind her harsh intellectual appearance, Williams masks her true identity--a girl similar to Jenny. In an earlier exchange Jenny suggests that Miss Stubbs is dead, yet in visiting her apartment, Jenny discovers that she did in fact experience life and that Jenny too can fix her setback.
Perhaps it was my state as a transient student, journeying between to universities, that allowed "An Education" to move me so. Nonetheless, Scherfig's film coupled with the fine performance and soundtrack, captures the dilemma of the middle class and leaves the audience wondering, how do remain true to yourself when thrust into a life you don't even remember creating?