by Jef Burnham
Screening at the Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF) at 6 pm at AMC River East 21 on Sunday, October 11, 2009.
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An Education, from director Danish director Lone Scherfig and screenwriter Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy), features some incredibly able cast, but the individual performances are unfortunately greater than the film as a whole. A great buzz has surrounded this film since it premiered at Sundance earlier this year, and given that the film is sometimes formally confusing and structurally predictable, one has to wonder why.
The story revolves around Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a high school student in suburban London during the 1960s, who is being pushed by everyone around her in her studies that she might be accepted into Oxford. Jenny ends up falling for an older man named David (Peter Sarsgaard), who has fingers in various shady dealings including black market goods and cons to scare old ladies out of their flats to buy them up cheap. Predictably, Jenny rebels against the restrictive lifestyle she is being forced to lead and a predictable series of confrontations arise.
Carey Mulligan’s performance is brilliant. Her portrayal of Jenny is so nuanced that you can see her acting all the way into her eyelids, where the slightest twitch has much larger implications. Her costar Sarsgaard, though his actions are obviously creepy and he’s generally a little creepy himself, is in fact very endearing with a decidedly con man charm. In the scenes where he is trying to win over Jenny’s parents (played by Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour), you could not find a person as slyly charming as Sarsgaard. However, during his romantic scenes with Jenny, there is no hint of suaveness to be found. Then he’s just creepy (and not just because he’s being romantic with a 16-year-old).
The film is actually based on a section of British journalist Lynn Barber’s memoirs. That being said, this portion of her life is highly predictable— by cinematic standards. The major character revelations are foreseeable in the earliest conversations, and the last ten minutes of the film are not only the most predictable, but simultaneously the least plausible as almost nothing is explained. A bit of confusing, seemingly irrelevant voice-over narration somehow creeps into the last two minutes, though the previous 90 minutes contained not a single word of narration.
The most unfortunate thing of all for the film in regards to said weak ending is that the filmmakers made too good an argument against women in the 1960s getting a formal education in the earlier acts of the film. Though there is an obvious attempt, they are never able to convincingly reverse this stance. They seem to instead be banking on a modern audience to ignore the information provided them in the film and apply their own beliefs to the situation. This assumption implies further that the audience is expected to remain distantly objective of the characters— never to become invested— which contradicts the intentions of an intimate character study.
If you can look past its flaws, and there are more than a few, I do feel that An Education is worth watching if for Mulligan’s performance alone.
Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.
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