Film Review: An Education (2009)

“Silly schoolgirls are always getting seduced by glamorous older men, but what about you two?”

Lone Scherfig’s film An Education was one of my top films back in 2009 and rightly saw Carey Mulligan nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars. Watching it again reminded me of how good it is, a great showcase for British film and one of my favourite depictions of 1960s Britain I think I’ve ever seen. Nick Hornby’s screenplay is based on Lynn Barber’s memoirs of her schoolgirl years, spent mainly pleasing her father’s desire for her to be an excellent student and get into Oxford. That is, until handsome stranger David offers her a lift one day. That he’s twice her age is no matter, the world of sophistication he inhabits seduces her entirely from her humdrum Twickenham existence and changes her life completely.

Mulligan is brilliantly cast as the 16 going on 17 Jenny Mellor, the combination of her youthful looks and soulful eyes captures much of the teenage precocity that leads her to think she’s more mature than she is, especially in the face of such rowdy schoolgirl friends like Ellie Kendrick’s Tina and as she rushes headlong into this adult world of jazz clubs, stolen nights in hotels and weekends away in Paris, she brilliantly shows how her self-assuredness is slowly stripped away as she comes to see what she has sacrificed in order to follow her heart. Olivia Williams’ brilliant Miss Stubbs is the perfect counterpoint, a spinster teacher who encourages Jenny’s academic dreams yet perversely epitomises the height of ambition for an educated woman.

The film captures a world on the cusp of about to start swinging into the 1960s – Alfred Molina’s kindly if determined father adamant that his daughter will have the opportunities that he never did, Emma Thompson’s delightful headteacher desperately trying to protect the reputation of her girls, and the cool kids whose decadence is so appealing to Jenny. Rosamund Pike’s comically vapid Helen and Dominic Cooper’s dangerously suave Danny are the perfect gateway into a world longing to surrender to hedonism and as the gatemaster, Peter Sarsgaard’s David is dreamily seductive, handsome enough without being too good-looking, his weaselling into the Mellor household all-too-convincing.

As with most coming-of-age films, there has to come a reckoning and it is excellently executed here (it has Sally Hawkins in it, of course it does), full of the brutal reality and ugly truth of ‘real life’ and the subsequent end of teenage dreams. But though it may seem like the world is coming to end as a teenager nurses a broken heart, the film reminds us that it is but a bump in the long journey of life and that nothing’s ever quite so bad that a chat with Olivia Williams and a flirt with James Norton won’t solve. Recommended viewing. 

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