An Education Review
Twickenham, 1961. Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl. Enraptured by all things French and existentialist – as were many at that time – she’s a likely Oxbridge candidate. One day, she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), a property developer in his thirties. A friendship develops between him, as he introduces her to a world of fine restaurants, art and glamour far above what she is used to. But is David all he seems?
An Education began life as journalist Lynn Barber’s memoir of her seduction by an older man. Nick Hornby’s adaptation, brought to the screen by Danish director Lone Scherfig, changes names and some details. The film has a sharp eye for period, and avoids a too-PC revision of the past – many of the characters smoke, Jenny included, and dialogue references to “Negroes”, “Jews” and “coloured people” are indicative of the casual racism and anti-Semitism of the time. I wasn’t around in 1961 but know something of the period, and details seem accurate. The possible queasiness of the scenario is downplayed but isn’t entirely absent – though Hornby and Scherfig show commendable restraint in not showing certain scenes, such as that of Jenny’s virginity loss. The film is well-named, as “Education” has several connotations: academic as well as emotional and sexual. Jenny's female teacher (Olivia Williams) and headmistress (Emma Thompson), themselves no doubt beneficiaries of the 1948 Education Act which notably increased opportunities for women, see Jenny as someone with a bright future, one in which they have something of an investment in. Needless to say, they don't want this promise derailed by a relationship that will no doubt end in tears. This is a film whose originating material is by a woman, directed by one, but with a screenplay by a man, and you may feel that David is let off a little too lightly.
The film is anchored by a performance from Carey Mulligan (actually twenty-two at the time) that will deserve every award it will no doubt go on to win. (Mulligan previously appeared in the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice as Kitty Bennet and also had a small role in Public Enemies, but is probably best known as Sally Sparrow in the Doctor Who episode “Blink”.) American actor Peter Sarsgaard is all urbanity and surface flash as David, and the fact that the audience knows that he is dodgy before the characters do can be put down to it being a less knowing time. The same goes for the ease in which David wins Jenny’s parents over. In the supporting cast, Alfred Molina is outstanding as Jenny’s father and Olivia Williams and Emma Thompson make the most of their scenes. John De Borman’s Scope camerawork and the production and costume design (Andrew McAlipine and Odile Dicks-Mireaux respectively) add considerably to the mood and atmosphere.
An Education is a small, minor-keyed, character-led piece that takes on larger issues than it might seem to at first. Minor misgivings apart, it’s one of the best films I’ve seen this year, and like character, like actor - Carey Mulligan clearly has a fine future ahead of her.