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An Education

November 16, 2009

In 1961, the year in which An Education is for the most part set, Philip Larkin wrote that in cobble-close families / In mill-towns on dark mornings / Life is slow dying.

Like Larkin, An Education concerns itself with Autumns and Winters spent drawing the curtains against the dark and mysterious world, suburban lives running carefully down trammeled lines, the ‘cut-price crowd’ hiding away in their living rooms and dining rooms. Part of this crowd is Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a 16 year old school girl, fiercely bright and sparky, but moulded with fear and dedication by her kindly despotic father (Alfred Molina), as he attempts to provide her with the means to escape to an Oxbridge education.

It is symbolic then, that while queuing for a bus in the pouring rain, she is charmed into the car of David (Peter Sarsgaard), a worldly playboy figure whom she sees as living forever in sunshine. David represents everything that her life is not, fun; carefree adventure, Paris, jazz, drinks parties and frivolity. And he comes into her life at a time when she is stalling in her studies and eager for distraction (“Studying is hard and boring, teaching is hard and boring, so what you’re telling me is to be bored, and then bored, and finally bored again but this time for the rest of my life?”).

An Education follows Jenny’s infatuation with David, watches her skip over the danger signs that he’s a bit of a bad ‘un, and then finally sits back and takes in her inevitable fall from grace as he lets her down in the worst possible way.

It would be wrong to say that this is painful to watch, but there are spikes of real emotion. In her memoir upon which the film is based, Lynn Barber is very candid about her relationship with the older man. “Was [he] a con-man? Well, he was a liar and a thief who used charm as his jemmy to break into my parents’ house and steal their most treasured possession, which was me.” This theft is most arrestingly felt by Molina who, apologising to his daughter through a slammed-shut bedroom door, evokes, with the tiniest changes in tone, a man whose heart is breaking wide open.

The acting all around is exemplary. Sarsgaard plays David two or three steps removed from being knowable (we might like to think we know enough about his sort any way) but that’s because he’s a clever actor who’s aware that David doesn’t even know himself. But it’s not about him, or Molina, as good as they are; it’s about Carey Mulligan, and she is nothing short of wonderful. There is a heartbreaking vulnerability to her, and yet there are no pyrotechnics here, no thrown teacups or huge crying fits. She plays everything with a deft and light touch, but crucially, she is wonderfully likable, and has you on her side straight away. At no point, regardless of the decisions she makes do you want to judge or criticise, you just want to watch her and watch her and watch her and hope that eventually she will come to rest somewhere that deserves all she has to offer.

One Comment leave one →
  1. July 26, 2010 7:16 am

    I loved An Education too. It was quietly stunning, with wonderful complex performances from all concerned. I too liked the fact that David wasn’t a pantomime baddie; I almost felt sorry for him at times. And Molina was excellent. But I agree, Carey Mulligan was the star and, unlike so many films centred around schoolgirls, she really did look and sound like a bright and pretty schoolgirl on her way to becoming a gorgeous swan.

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