In a year already decorated with and defined by a strong, liberating output from female directors, Lone Scherfig’s An Education is a calculated and sophisticated work about a time when women were questioning and challenging their cultural boundaries. Opposed to Kathryn Bigelow’s magnificent war-drama The Hurt Locker or Jane Campion’s lush period drama Bright Star, Scherfig’s film is the first crowning woman’s achievement of the year that’s actually about women.
Set in suburban London in 1962 and adapted from Lynn Barber’s true-life memoir by screenwriter Nick Hornby, An Education charts the coming-of-age journey of 16-year old Jenny (slam-dunk Best Actress nominee Carey Mulligan), who is courted by a rich, slick traveler and his swooning red sports car on a rainy weekday afternoon. The striking fellow is David, a middle-aged smoothie with nice suits, played by Peter Sarsgaard with astonishing intrigue and mystery. He’s so much more mature and suave than Jenny’s long, lanky and more appropriately aged admirer, Graham, that the film decides to play up this dramatic disparity with welcome comedic results.
As a smart, book savvy teenage girl with an almost disobedient affection for French cinema and music, the promise of a life of fortune, fashion and adventure can prove to be too much to ignore. Not only for Jenny, but for her father (played by the wonderful Alfred Molina) who is equally hypnotized and spellbound by the allures of David’s protection as he weighs the cost of Jenny’s education at Oxford.
Such is the vulnerability and inadequacy of growing up a woman in 1962. For them, and for Jenny, your choices are to either lock up with the first rich and confiding man you see or work your heart out to live a life of harmless, but stable conformity – something Jenny sees in her English teacher, Miss Stubs, (Olivia Williams). Jenny describes the blank, expressionless educator as “dead” ever since her graduation from Cambridge, implying a disgracefully apathetic life of tedium opposed to her globetrotting affairs with David.
You could say that this film represents the end of an era where women were powerless and susceptible to an easy life of non-conformity, knowing the alternative. Similar to AMC’s hit series “Mad Men,” also set in the early 60’s, the movie represents an age of impending cultural revolution where women were just beginning to question their societal limitations.
It’s such an honest and perfectly framed film, quaint and classy, jazzy and refined. Nick Hornby’s script is both penetratingly exact yet opaque, without a wasted breath or scene in-between. Scherfig, meanwhile, uses her feminine touch to make the film resonate where it otherwise might not have – similar to the way Kathryn Bigelow’s unnatural masculinity enhanced The Hurt Locker. Also, John de Borman’s rich lensing gives An Education a pleasurable and alluring palette, like a cozy street-side café.
Carey Mulligan, a 24-year old English actress who will be a household name come Spring next year, gives a star-turn here as the perhaps ignorantly confident Jenny. She has such an immediate presence in the film that’s rare for a young actress and it’s easily the best in a top-to-bottom stunning ensemble. Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike, as David’s equally posh and carefree friends – plus Emma Thompson as the school headmaster – all contribute to the cause.
As Jenny finds her existential truths and her place in the world around her, An Education reverberates like no other coming-of-age drama of recent memory. “Action builds character,” she says, and although it’s not necessarily in the sense that she means at the time, the message fits regardless. Sometimes, the best education is the one that doesn’t have to be bought.