An Education (2009)
Starring Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike, Olivia Williams, Sally Hawkins, Emma Thompson
Director of Photography: John de Borman
Music by Paul Englishby
Edited by Barney Pilling
Written by Nick Hornby
Directed by Lone Scherfig
Rating: 8,5 out of 10
An Education is a strangely unconventional film that feels more conventional than it is. It acts like a romance between two people that have to fight against conventions but turns out to be a bildungsfilm, the story of a girl growing up and becoming more mature than the adults around her. That makes it a much more powerful movie than it would have been as a tragic romance. Carey Mulligan is absolutely brilliant in the lead and after seeing her in six different movies in six wildly different roles in the last year, I believe she could play anyone. The movie is very entertaining, maybe a little slow in the middle, but especially the ending is powerful and effective.
It’s 1961: Jenny (Mulligan) is a student who is very determined in studying and achieving her goal of getting into Oxford. Her parents could be called “supportive”, but it becomes obvious quickly that especially her father (Alfred Molina, a lot of fun) puts a lot of pressure on her. Her parents are interesting throughout the movie. Just like our culture demands, they neglect any kind of direct affection for their daughter and only care about her education and “future.” When Jenny meets David (Peter Sarsgaard, as ambiguous as the role demands) they are not very worried, despite the fact that he is a stranger and much older than Jenny, because they see a secure future for her and that’s all that counts. For them “education” is only a list of things you need to know to be respectable and part of society. They want their child to be part of this society and that is more important than her happiness. That’s nothing new of course, but the movie does a good job of portraying that conflict that is created in Jenny.
While her interest in school is genuine, meeting David makes her doubt this future life she has always imagined. He shows her a life of adventure, of adulthood that is not Married With Kids, but a certain freedom. Giving the alternative of her home life with her parents (who are not portrayed as bad people) you can see the appeal in the life that he and his friends (Rosamund Pike and Dominic Cooper) offer her. That they turn out to be criminals is almost beside the point, though there is a sense of disappointment when Jenny realizes this. But it becomes clear that this is the only way to lead a life of such freedom and adventure in this culture, by breaking the rules.
As Jenny starts questioning her life and society, she also questions her education. She flunks out in school and accidentally insults her teacher (Olivia Williams), who confronts her and clearly disapproves of her new life. Jenny replies:
Maybe will our lives going to end up with pony essays. Or housework. And yes, maybe we'll go to Oxford. But if we're all going to die the moment we graduate, Isn't it what we do before that counts?
Again, this is no new territory per se, but I still appreciate the way it shows the choice we’re often give in this culture. Follow the path everyone takes and risk being bored and disillusioned with your life or take the path beyond society’s rules and risk missing what everyone has. Security or freedom, if you want. The movie shows that this is not an obvious choice, neither for Jenny nor for David.
The ending, after it turns out that David actually is also married with kids, would be devastating to Jenny in any other movie. And at first, it is. We see her crying and we see her disappointment, but what makes the movie so astonishing is how it shows her getting through this. It helps that these are not tragic circumstances under which the relationship doesn’t have a chance, but it’s only an adult man’s fear of committing, of making tough decisions. David is not portrayed as a villain and not even as a fraud, as simply a weak man too immature to follow anything through. This is amazingly emphasized in the movie by having him simply disappear in the last part of the film, as if Jenny realizes that he does not matter to her life anymore. She comes out stronger, blaming her parents for not being more careful and deciding to continue her education, but this time it’s not because she has to but because she wants to. This change is made very clear, especially in the last shot. All the things that happened to her, gave her the opportunity to be herself and find her own way.