An Education, director Lone Scherfig’s film about coming of age in 1960s suburban London, may not have taken home many statuettes over the awards season, but that is more of a comment on the bias and tastes of academy voters than the quality of the piece, as it is sweet, engrossing and a little bit subversive.
BAFTA winner Carey Mulligan stars as Jenny, a 16-year-old girl of a certain intelligence that towers over her peers and parents, yet is still bound by the niceties of domestic life and the hoop-jumping of school. (Ah, to be a teenager.) She has Oxford in her sights, as does her overbearing father, who, in an early scene, states that the university would be impressed by her orchestra attendance, as she would seem to be a ‘joiner-inner’.
Jenny, however, stands apart. She is youthful in expression, but has a grit to her voice that belies a certain edge. She peppers her speech with French phrases and aces English essays. Her school friends are ineffectual saps and giggling girls. Her parents and teachers are stuffy old sellouts.
So, it is no surprise that the world conjures up David (Peter Sarsgaard), a cultured, rich man that comes into her life, indulges her whims and grants her escape from tedium and uncertainty. He introduces her to jazz and cocktails, and takes her to classical concerts, art auctions and, eventually, Paris. As her grades slip and enthusiasm for the academic slog fades, Jenny becomes entranced by the possibility of a life with this mysterious man.
What works as a perky tale of youthful rebellion and life-lesson drama houses some beguiling depth. At the heart of this is the film’s perspective, as Nick Hornby’s script (taking cues from Lynn Barber’s memoir), and Scherfig’s direction make Jenny the focus, not only in terms of gaze and screentime, but sympathy. She is not patronised by the camera; she is not a victim, or a misguided youngster, but instead plunges with hunger into this adventure.
The film twists and turns, and, like its protagonist, does not settle on its own opinion on the big issues. The audience is pulled along, as easy peaks of tragedy and drama are avoided, with a particular skill and lightness of touch.
The key trick concerns the film’s central binary, that of education and experience: should Jenny live a decadent life with David, or remain in the dull world of exams, essays and delayed, unspecified future success?
While the film has a distinct narrative throughline, with a revelation and a conclusion that ties it up quite nicely, it achieves that subjective quality, where the viewing experience mirrors that of Jenny’s.
Of course, this is allowed by the brilliant central performances, with Carey Mulligan making Jenny charming, yet not downplaying the necessary arrogant, pretentious and strong-willed aspects of the character. The supporting cast, too, are strong but malleable, with each character illuminated differently as Jenny’s opinions shift and develop, providing a trans-Atlantic counterpart to the broken-family drama of The Squid And The Whale. Her father (Alfred Molina) is equally stuck up, class anxious and unconfident, her school friends equally immature and, well, youthful, and her teachers – two stand-out cameos from Olivia Williams and Emma Thompson – are, by turns, scowling bores and dignified role models.
But the largest shift comes from Sarsgaard’s deceitful older man, David. It is very telling of the film’s subtle, canny approach that he is never outright condemned, with the actor bringing a foundation of charm and innocence to a character that could easily seem manipulative and slimy.
This is such a deceptive film. With its sweeping grace, and a gentle, bright humour spilling from Hornby’s script, An Education wears a thin veneer of simplicity that may mask its many triumphs to most viewers. Its picture book 1960s London is a beautiful place to inhabit, with exquisite production design and an idyllic sense of framing, where even suburban showers have a vivid warmth. But this is hyper-real nostalgia, a world tempered to suit the mind of Mulligan’s character, where home and school are dreary but familiar, and the clubs frequented by socialites fizz with a foreign, dangerous flair.
It is ever so slightly warped, capped off with a delightful, cheeky soundtrack that combines swinging instrumentals like Floyd Cramer’s On The Rebound and French chanteuse Juliette Greco, with 21st Century retro workouts from Duffy, Beth Rowley and Madeleine Peyroux. And, what’s more, there’s not an anachronistic Beatle in sight. They’re not needed, as An Education pulses with its own sort of energy.
An audio commentary track with Scherfig, Mulligan and Sarsgaard is charming and heavy on the production anecdotes, but doesn’t offer enough insight to warrant watching the film through again.
An 8-minute featurette is mostly made up of repeated film footage, interspersed with mild interview segments with most of the cast and crew, with appearances from Barber and Hornby being of particular interest.
Over 15 minutes of deleted scenes round up the package, the majority of which are short-ish filler scenes, although the film’s original ending – a short scene with Jenny meeting David in Oxford that was thankfully changed – is included.
An Education is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.