An Education

Posted on March 30, 2010 at 8:00 am

Part of the charm of “An Education,” a bittersweet coming of age story based on a brief memoir by Lynn Barber, is how much we know what its main character does not. Jenny (an incandescent Carey Mulligan) is a teenager in 1961 London, over-protected by her overly-cautious and conventional parents and eager to be independent and to have adventures. She is used to being the smartest one in the class and so even more than most teenagers, she is convinced that she understands many important things her parents cannot possibly comprehend. She is eager to grow up, to seem sophisticated, to be sophisticated. She is innocent, filled with potential, willing to be taught — and she has no idea how powerfully attractive those qualities are to a predatory older man.

But we know that, and when David (Peter Sarsgaard) rescues Jenny and her cello from a rainstorm by giving her a ride home, we know she will confuse urbanity with wisdom, that she will think that because he lies on her behalf he will not lie to her. But the most important thing we know is that like Jenny, London is also on the brink of enormous changes. We know that a world of opportunities she could never imagine will open up to her. Unlike Jenny, we know she is going to be fine. After all, we know she went on to tell her story, in itself a triumph over whatever went wrong and whatever she lost.

Danish director Lone Scherfig perfectly captures London just as it is about to move from the drab, stiff-upper-lip, world of post-WWII deprivation to the brash and explosive era of mods and rockers, Carnaby Street and the Beatles, Twiggy, “The Avengers,” and Joe Orton. Part of what makes David so exciting is that Jenny believes that the only options available to her are teacher and housewife and the only examples of both she has seen appear dull and unrewarding. David gives her a glimpse of a life that is never dull. It is always shopping and parties and travel, pretty clothes and lovely restaurants. If in order to have all of that she must lie to her parents and defy her teachers, that makes it all the more exciting. It binds her to him even more, creating a set of rules that is just for them.

That is how it seems, anyway. The education referred to in the movie title tells us that she will learn some difficult lessons. But its conclusion reminds Jenny and us that it is only the end of her beginning. She thought meeting David was the beginning of her future; she learns that the real beginning only came afterward.

The screenplay by Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity,” “About a Boy”) is sympathetic but insightful, skillful in sketching in each of the characters. Sarsgaard also makes David more than a predator. Jenny is not just smarter than he is; she is stronger, too. As Jenny goes from school girl to dressed-up doll to the beginning of adulthood, from the make-it-do, wear-it-out modesty of her home to Paris hot spots, Production designer Andrew McAlpine and costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux show exquisite sensitivity in giving Jenny a look that tells the story. Every performance is a gem: Alfred Molina, proud but fearful as Jenny’s father, Emma Thompson, starchy as the headmistress, and Olivia Williams, a teacher who wants more for Jenny than she wants for herself (it must have been quite a challenge for hair and make-up to turn Williams into such a dowdy character). Rosamund Pike is utterly charming as a dim but kind-hearted party girl. And Carey Mulligan, in a star-making turn, makes this into one of the best films of the year.

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Based on a book Based on a true story Drama Family Issues Romance

4 Replies to “An Education”

  1. I am deeply disturbed by this film’s unabashed anti-Semitic agenda. I just can’t believe that so many people, especially film critics, don’t see it. So what if it was based on a true story recorded in a memoir by Lynn Barber? I haven’t read Barber’s book, but if it’s anti-Semitic as well (which I doubt is the case) – does that justify this screenplay making it to the screen?
    The screenplay had nothing to gain with David’s character being Jewish. If the intent was to put his character on the fringes (relevant for 1960s Britain) then all that was necessary was to give him a foreign accent or something. And perhaps even make him Jewish – but not insinuate that his ethnicity was at the root of his perversity.
    The anti-Semitic ranting of the head mistress and the father were never really rebutted, contrary to many comments I have read, because a) Jenny never really comes to his defence and b) the movie itself proves that the headmistress was right while the father, who overcame his anti anti-Semitism, got screwed.
    The film teaches us that David is a seductive crook, a cradle robber, a pervert (banana?! Minnie?! Can I see them?!), an adulterer and unworthy father (and his Jewess wife seems to be OK with this), a widow swindler (the map scene), robs old ladies, a racist (schwartzes is the yiddish equivalent to niggers), is anti-education but loves to exploit and reap the pleasures of high culture… man, this guy is the scum of the earth, he’s got all the right stuff, oh, and did I forgot to mention – he’s a Jew, he’s a Jew, he’s a Jew – and his whole tribe is the just like him (as David professes in the film – this is how we are – we’re not as educated as you…) I mean I never saw a character’s ethnicity hammered at the viewer to this extent when in truth his ethnicity was completely irrelevant to the film – unless someone thinks it wasn’t.
    In a word – this film is nothing short of propaganda and hate. Is the critics’ silence over this a jab at Hollywood which is too Jewish for anyone to bear.

  2. Thanks, Montreal. I appreciate the comment, but I do not agree that the movie is anti-Semitic. I have read Barber’s brief memoir and the real-life character was Jewish, the first Jew she ever met. And as you suggest, this was kept in the film not just for historical authenticity but because it added to his exotic appeal for this very sheltered girl. The banana, Minnie, and “can I see them” elements are straight from Barber’s account as well.
    I did not think the point of view of the movie was at all anti-Semitic. The point of view of the movie was not on the side of those who expressed anti-Semitic views. Certainly the headmistress was not an exemplar of judgment or kindness. The portrayal of anti-Semitism by movie characters is not the same as perpetuating anti-Semitism — on the contrary.
    The fact that the parents who were narrow in so many ways raised no objection or concern about their daughter’s marrying outside her faith showed an openness that was surprising in the film. And David’s “this is how we are” was not a reference to his being Jewish (note that for him Judaism was merely a cultural signifier; he in no way demonstrated any Jewish practice, belief, observance, or values) but a reference to his life, his capabilities, and his choices. So I think what you considered to be derisive references to his being Jewish were either coming from people the movie portrays as ignorant or bigoted or references to other elements of David’s character or history.
    Note also that the movie is not from Hollywood. It is an English film with mostly English actors, based on an English story, written by an English author and based on an English book. The director, whom I interviewed, is Danish. It is not a commentary on Jews in Hollywood or elsewhere. It is just a woman telling her own story and a character who behaved badly happened to be Jewish.

  3. The Film An Education: Anti-Semitic or Just the Facts?
    The British film “An Education” is an artful and engaging coming of age story based on a memoir. Why are we promptly told that one of the main characters is Jewish (with familiar stereotypes) when his religion adds nothing to the plot?

  4. Thank you, Bernard. As noted above, I have read the memoir and seen the movie and do not believe either is anti-Semitic. It is based on a true story about an individual and I did not find the portrayal to be based on any of the usual anti-Semitic stereotypes. Aside from being based on a true story, the fact that the character was Jewish in a very prejudiced society contributed to his appeal to the main character as exotic and an outsider and a symbol of rebellion. It added a great deal to the plot, and I think it would be a mistake to see any bigotry in the portrayal.

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