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An Education

February 27, 2011

An Education (2009)
Director: Lone Scherfig
Actors: Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina

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Synopsis: A bright teenage girl (Carey Mulligan), on the cusp of winning acceptance to study at Oxford University, has her head turned by the company of an older boyfriend (Peter Sarsgaard).

Review: There are lots of nice touches and interesting ideas floating around the surface of An Education, but ultimately a late failure-of-nerve in its plotting sees the promise of the material wrapped up in far too neat, conclusive and “happy” an ending. It’s a shame because there is so much going for the film with its fascinating premise of how a sweet, precociously-intelligent sixteen year old from a classically middling-class background falls for the promise of a glamorous lifestyle with an older, thirty-something lover. If anyone deserves credit for the film’s realisation, it should be its casting directors, because the themes and sentiment of the piece are extremely well served by its actors. Carey Mulligan does a magnificent job of embodying the spirit of the educationally gifted but understandably ‘green’ teenager, who makes an earnest attempt to fit in with her new exalted company – only slightly betrayed by her naïve, gauche Frenchisms and her unwillingness to question more the fairly obvious transparencies and emptiness of her new lover. The play on class and Sixties’ sexual politics is brilliantly encompassed through Alfred Molina’s turn as Mulligan’s character’s father – a mixture of lower middle-class neuroses (he’s initially desperate to see his daughter get accepted at Oxford, before happily trading that in for her engagement to a seemingly prosperous and socially superior man) and ‘Little England’ stoicism (ranting monologues reveal his pathological tightness in money matters, and an irrational dislike of the “exotic” French).

That the promising narrative dissipates into a contrived ending is a shame. While I have no objection to the central moral which seems to be that Mulligan’s character has been suitably chastened by her flirtation with an adult lifestyle, and recognises the virtue of respecting the age she’s at and honouring the need to get a good education – it’s how the film reaches that conclusion which is disappointing. It might have been more rhetorically correct had the allure or illusion of a lifestyle with Peter Sarsgaard’s chancer simply faded away as time spent with this clearly opaque man would have played out. Instead, the film throws in all the predictable third-act cogs: Sarsgaard’s character is given a secret wife and young child, and revealed to be a serial courter of young girls, while Mulligan is given a triumphant self-education postscript where she recognises the error of her ways and with the help of a kindly English teacher manages to gain entrance to Oxford and return to her pre-destined life path without seemingly much tribulation. (February 2011)

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