Review: AN EDUCATION
The coming-of-age story has been done so many times that it is difficult to imagine that anyone has anything refreshing left to add to the genre, if it can be called that. Yet somehow director Lone Scherfig and writer Nick Hornby’s An Education manages to present itself as wholly original, a charming, nostalgic, heartbreaking, and altogether invigorating tale set during a 1961 England that was on the cusp of social and artistic revolution.
Taking place in a post-war, pre-Beatles London suburb, An Education follows 16-year old Jenny, a brilliant and culture-minded student with aims to “read English” at the prestigious Oxford University. Her quiet existence takes an unexpected turn when the charismatic David appears in her life, a suitor twice her age who is debonair, witty, and culturally refined in all the ways that Jenny postures to be. He charms his way into her life and home, even winning the approval of Jenny’s timid and buttoned-up parents, and whisks her off to the alluring and seductive world of smoky jazz clubs and romantic Parisian getaways. Jenny suddenly finds herself faced with either continuing her education, a self-empowering but toiling exercise in which she has recently lost sight of its meaning, or giving herself over to the “university of life” and tackling the world’s adventures head on.
Before Britain got swinging in the early-to-mid-60’s, the country was still asleep in its highly rationed and conservative reconstruction, where the status quo frowned upon the unstable and pleasure-seeking lifestyles as led by the culture-inclined. The dilemma faced by Jenny is in a sense a microcosm of the quiet rumblings going on throughout the United Kingdom, a societal awakening to not just living, but living for fun again.
The performances are uniformly excellent throughout An Education, and the star is the then-22-year old Carey Mulligan as Jenny. There is a vitality and honesty in her portrayal, an exuberance she captures that is the pulse of this film. There has already been plenty of ink spilled celebrating Mulligan for her work here, and consider me among the chorus singing her praises. Peter Sarsgaard also reminds us of what a talent he is, pulling off the character of David with a perfect balance of magnetism and unsettling guile. Scherfig has recruited a stellar supporting cast to fill out the ranks, with Alfred Molina and Emma Thompson earning particularly high marks for their roles as Jenny’s strict but haplessly well-meaning father and the stern, nearly venomous headmistress of Jenny’s school, respectively.
Olivia Williams, who seems to dwindle in supporting parts despite being a wondrously gifted actress, is also fantastic as Jenny’s teacher Miss Stubbs. Some of the most poignant moments in the film occur between her character and Jenny, and Williams brings a sublime, calloused-over wistfulness to the part. There is a scene towards the end that takes place between Jenny and Miss Stubbs at the teacher’s flat, and it is brilliantly executed – which starts with being brilliantly written. Hornby has outdone himself here. He captures the wide-eyed wonderment of the art-loving teenage dreamer with a sensitivity and grace that surpasses his previous works, and he is already a writer not without a reverent level of regard.
Amidst the country-wide paradigm shift and coming-of-age caprice that inform An Education, the film engages because of the perceptive and truthful way it handles Jenny’s journey. It differentiates itself because of a flawless cast anchored by the luminous performance of its young lead. And it resonates because of the familiar anxieties that seem to more and more mirror our time, that of embracing uncertain futures and the bubbling of change in our cultural milieux. We go through Jenny’s education one cautious, brave step at a time, and arrive at the other end with a little more life, optimism, and maybe even wisdom than when we went in.