The M/C Review: ‘An Education’ launches Mulligan to stardom

10.09.09 8 years ago

Sony Pictures Classics

That picture says it all.

I saw this film at Sundance in January of this year, and I caught another look at it at Toronto.  It’s an exquisitely-crafted character study based on a memoir, and what it boils down to is that moment when a father looks another man in the eye and says to himself, “Okay.  This is the guy I’m trusting her to.  This is the guy I think can make the life she deserves.”

What if that father is wrong?

In a way, I’m glad both my kids are boys.  I can’t imagine having to survive the early years of dating, worrying about the intentions of each new kid sniffing around my little girl.  I was a teenage boy.  I know exactly what sort of depraved freaks they are.  I have every reason not to trust a one of them.  Still, there’s a relationship between father and daughter that I’ll never experience, and I’m sure it is rewarding in very specific ways.  In “An Education,” Alfred Molina plays Jack, the demanding, overbearing father of Jenny, played by the luminous Carey Mulligan.  She’s getting ready for university, and he pushes her hard, expecting her to find a place at Oxford.  Molina takes what could be a fairly flat role and invests it with layers of identifiable human anxiety.  He’s worried that she won’t get into the right school, which won’t give her the right advantage in life after school, but beneath that, he secretly hopes that she’s going to meet “the right man” before she ever has to finish school, with her education serving simply as bait for “the right man.”  The film’s set in the ’60s, just on the verge of the sexual revolution, and Jenny is in a social position where she is defined by her relationship to men.  And it’s obvious from the moment we meet her in the film that this is a person of consequence, someone who should only be defined by herself.  Reaching the point where she can make that stand is the entire focus of the film, and it’s a journey that is absolutely worth sharing with her.

It’s interesting that the film would finally hit theaters just as the cultural conversation revolves around David Letterman and Roman Polanski and notions of age and power in sexual relationships.  Jenny meets an older man named David (Peter Sarsgaard), and she quickly finds herself drawn to his experience, his knowledge, and his access to a world she’s only imagined up until this point. When I was in Belfast this past week, I was reading a big piece about the history of the suburbs in the UK, and the influence they’ve had on culture.  Here in America, the suburbs were always portrayed as an ideal, as something that people strive to accomplish, but in the UK, they seem to be something to escape, a cultural dead-end.  Jenny is a perfect example of that, a girl who has been given a “good” upbringing, and a big part of the education she’s being given is opening her eyes to the world at large.  That’s what David promises her, and at first, everything seems wonderful when she’s with him.  She experiences travel, art, music, and freedom.

The real heartbreak of the movie is the way her father reacts to David and what he’s selling.  He wants to believe that this guy is going to give Jenny the life she deserves, and he’s willing to compromise his own standards and look the other way at behavior that makes him uncomfortable.  Ultimately, Jenny has to figure out her own life, unable to use her father or David or even her favorite teacher (Olivia Williams) as any sort of compass.  The idea of her having to cut herself loose from her parents and from her boyfriend and trying to find her own way into adulthood is terrifying at first, but Jenny learns that she has reservoirs of strength she’s never tapped before.  Before she can find clarity, though, she loses herself in the dizzy lunacy of first love, and director Lone Scherfig does a perfect job of capturing all the emotion and the passion of that first love.  It’s amazing how even the smartest people can go insane when they are wrapped up in something that is based on pure emotion.  Reason only goes so far in this world, and balancing the head and the heart is difficult.

Mulligan has gotten a lot of buzz this year, and it’s all deserved.  Every single bit of it.  She convincingly plays a sixteen-year-old, but she also brings the wisdom of age to the performance, and it’s a remarkable bit of work.  Veterans like Molina and Sarsgaard stand toe-to-toe with her, and she never gives an inch.  She captures that moment when a young woman suddenly realizes she’s not someone’s child anymore, and that she’s not sure she wants to be anyone’s anything until she can be something for herself.  Nick Hornby’s script, working from Lynne Barber’s book, is subtle and smart and one of the year’s strongest adaptations.  As this one rolls out, you owe it to yourself to take a look at one of the brightest performances of the year in one of the most mature and knowing pictures of the year.  An ‘Education’ like this one can only be a good thing for an audience.

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