Review: An Education (2009)

Yes! We watched a movie! And what a lovely movie it was. I think everything you’ve heard about this movie is true. It’s not ground-breaking, but it’s beautiful to look at, impeccably acted, and emotionally resonant. Which, really, is more than you get from a lot of movies these days, right?

An Education is about sixteen-year-old Jenny (Cary Mulligan), who lives with her parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) in middle-class, 1960s London. Jenny attends a girls’ school, where she earns top grades and dreams of “reading English” at Oxford. She is pushed in those dreams by her father, who wants to see her well-educated. All of this gets turned upside down one day when she meets a handsome, apparently well-to-do playboy, David (Peter Sarsgaard) who takes a shine to her and suddenly whisks her off for a glamourous, real-world “education”. Suddenly, Jenny must re-evaluate her dreams, and decide which form of education will truly provide her with what she wants in life … and must face the consequences when the house of cards she’s been unwittingly setting up for herself comes crashing down.

First off, the film is gorgeous. The fabulous sixties clothes, and the changes in color from scenes of “normal” life to the brighter, more saturated hues that pop up in the “dream” world that Jenny visits with David all mix together to admirably shadow the story itself. Plus Cary Mulligan is totally darling, Sarsgaard and Dominic Cooper (who plays David’s friend and business associate Danny) are handsome in that sort of severe, always-in-a-suit way, and Rosamund Pike (as Danny’s ditzy girlfriend Helen) is lovely as always.

As fun as it is to look at, it’s the acting that makes this one. Mulligan and Sarsgaard are both really excellent; there’s a reason this movie has made a star of Cary Mulligan. She’s the heart of the story, of course, and she carries it with ease and grace, if perhaps a little too much self-possession for me. I  think that within the story, I would have liked to have seen her seem a little more out of her element. But perhaps I have merely forgotten exactly how well a sixteen-year-old girl can pretend to be worldly and wise beyond her years. I look forward to future projects, and seeing her mature as an actor. Sarsgaard walks the fine line between being smarmy and sympathetic, all while being the only Yank in the otherwise all-Brit cast. His is something of a thankless role, and I would have liked a bit more exposition, but that’s just the nature of the piece, I guess.

In my opinion, though, it’s the supporting cast that really make this special movie. Molina and Seymour are superb as the well-meaning, slightly stodgy parents who really only want the best for their daughter but must still contend with their own, generational ideas of how the world works. Cooper balances slight menace with sincerity expertly – I actually found his character to be one of the more interesting, and the one most similar to Jenny herself – a kindred spirit, perhaps. Pike, quite simply, steals the show. It takes some serious talent to play the quintessential blonde bimbo, complete with totally boneheaded statements and comically wide eyes, and never come across as obnoxious. She manages it flawlessly. And finally, in much smaller roles as a marmish teacher and prim headmistress, respectively,  Olivia Williams and the fabulous Emma Thompson (I find it hard to not just always attach fabulous at the beginning of her name) are spot-on.

Finally, there’s the story itself. As a coming-of-age movie, An Education isn’t really telling us anything new. Where it succeeds is in telling its story with simplicity. It never tries too hard, but packs in a lot of emotional resonance that will leave you thinking about it for a while after you’ve seen it.

Jenny, of course, is the main focus: the teenaged girl on the brink of independence, hoping for some adventure out of life but being reminded by the authority figures around her that opportunities for a young woman are not particularly glamourous or exciting. Jenny’s parents, who clearly had some of the same dreams for themselves at her age, but have settled into middle-class fears and mundanities, are being swept along by the fantasy and romance of Jenny’s experience, and forget their role as guardians and caretakers in the process.

The teacher and headmistress provide the other side of the coin with regard to Jenny’s future: they are women of the world, with very few illusions as to what might lie ahead for Jenny on her current path, probably having been down very similar roads themselves not so long ago. An interesting side theme is the presentation of the options open to a young woman during this period of time; despite the heady sense of what “reading English” at Oxford means to Jenny, for a woman at that time, the opportunities afforded still seem to be limited to finding a rich husband or becoming a teacher, droning the virtues of Charlotte Bronte to unimaginative young ladies to earn one’s living.

Finally, the world presented by David, Danny, and Helen looks shiny, but is naturally tarnished, and not really what it seems. They are, in some ways, as trapped in their existences as anyone else, searching for a way out, perhaps, through the involvement of other people. In a sense, they are struggling the hardest to believe in the life they represent to other people.  Helen’s really the only one who seems happy in her life, and that is because she is not bright enough to know better.

This, then, is the crux of Jenny’s education; that adventure comes with a price, that a drab, suburban existence doesn’t have to be joyless, that there are no “shortcuts” to getting what one wants, and that doing the right (or the wrong) thing isn’t guaranteed to make you feel any better about the situation one way or the other. Things we all already know, sure , but certainly worth the reminder.

All in all, absolutely a movie worth seeing. It’s funny without being silly or cheesy, romantic but not sappy, poignant without being heavy, and beautifully crafted across the board. These days it’s truly not that often that you come across a well-made movie, so enjoy them when they come along. Highly recommended.

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3 responses to “Review: An Education (2009)

  1. Sam – I’m really looking forward to seeing this one! The thing that struck me the most was your comment: “the opportunities afforded still seem to be limited to finding a rich husband or becoming a teacher, droning the virtues of Charlotte Bronte to unimaginative young ladies” – honestly, sometimes I feel like those are STILL the options.

    • I think you’ll like it. And you have a good point, although I daresay it’s a little better than it might’ve been in 1963, or whenever. 😉

      • Glad you like this too, Sam! It’s an absolutely gorgeous movie but the performances are equally beautiful. TOTALLY agree about the supporting cast… I heart Molina… he’s just wonderful in everything he’s in. I think every movie benefits from having him in the cast… I think if I were to write another fantasy movie pitch I’d cast him in a heartbeat! Miss Mulligan is so lovely… she carries this movie with little effort and much grace… hope she’ll be around for long.

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