“Coming of age”, is, generally speaking, something only boys transitioning into men are allowed to do onscreen. The very mention of this genre usually sends me into fits as these kinds of affairs are much like the paint-by-numbers “masterpieces” of my childhood: colorful enough but not entirely artistically credible. What can elevate such a time-worn trope are two things: an interesting directorial point of view and an intriguing cast that shines under the tutelage of the person at the helm (see also this season’s Jane Campion’s Bright Star and Lee Daniel’s harrowing Precious). It also never hurts to have a brilliant script to work from.
Fortunately for An Education, this alchemic trifecta of elements is in place and the resulting film is a smart, engaging piece of cinema, directed by Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners), written by Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) and starring Carey Mulligan (in a break out star turn), Alfred Molina, Emma Thompson, Olivia Williams, Cara Seymour, Olivia Williams, Peter Sarsgaard, Rosemund Pike and Dominic Cooper. “It’s a really wonderful experience to see actors give you something they don’t usually give to people,” said an enthusiastic Scherfig recently at a press event in Manhattan as she discussed the importance of working with great actors.
Jenny (Mulligan) isn’t like other girls. She’s bright, unusually contemplative, destined for an education at Oxford, a world of higher learning that threatens to suppress her quirks and individualism. She wants something more, though. By accident, she meets David (Sarsgaard), a much-older man who has the potential to turn her teenage world upside down, and perhaps even change it forever. For better or for worse, it is hard to tell initially. What David, a distaff Henry Higgins, opens up for Jenny is a romanticized life of possibility, a real-life education instead versus a formal one in academia.
It’s a simple story of disappointment, dreams and personal fulfillment that follows, and under the steady-handed direction of Scherfig, much emotional truth is discovered along the way, turning the “coming of age genre” on its ear in the process. “I had to fill in a few gaps,” said screenwriter Hornby of sketching the character of Jenny based on journalist Lynn Barber’s memoir (published in Granta 82: Life’s Like That). “I think my two big points of connection with Jenny were, number one, myself, because that sense of being bored in a suburb of London and frightened that somehow the city is going to shut you out of its life, I know that very much. Jenny discovers that if she gets into this guy’s car, she can be taken right into the middle of the city, and go to these restaurants, and hear this music and see these films. That hunger was something I identified with very, very strongly. I’d say the other thing is that my sister, who is two years older than me felt the same way. She was someone I had in my mind when I was writing the character of Jenny.”
As the young woman at the center of this peculiar microcosm of a universe, pulling everyone in with the gravity of her charm and acerbic wit, Mulligan beautifully shows what it’s like for a girl on the cusp of womanhood to grapple between the past and the future. Jenny grasps at the remnants of her childhood, the whimsy, the lack of responsibility, and makes a case that this is, in fact, what we are all supposed to do at this age: make mistakes and learn from them. She is a know it all, yet she knows nothing.
The actress masters a tricky dramatic arc, appearing youthful and full of childishness one minute, mature and seasoned the next (“I didn’t get into drama school,” laughed the charismatic Mulligan. I tried.”) She’s funny, and full of hubris, yet gawky. Scherfig finds a nice tone of awkwardness throughout the film, one that is set by Mulligan’s excellent timing. This unique, endearing rhythm is manifested in too-long silences, shared mystified glances and misfired sentences, not just by the central character, but by the entire supporting cast, lending a warmly human, relatable feeling to the film. (Molina, in particular is a stand out – what exactly does he have to do to get an Oscar nomination?!)
What An Education is ultimately about, though, is not simply “coming of age”; there’s an emotional complexity and a beautifully-captured curiosity showcased. Drinking in culture, letting art flow through you, and absorbing new experiences like a sponge. Scherfig asserts that these alternative “educations” and the kind of lessons Jenny learns from David, can be just as essential as going to school. What’s most important is the thirst for it all, for culture, for knowledge, for charting one’s own course. Sometimes grades aren’t important, sometimes experience is, sometimes romance is.
“I got as seduced by David as Jenny does, as the family does and hopefully how the audience does,” said Scherfig. “The age gap was not that much of an issue for me. I think its just one of the many themes that there are in this film. To me ‘education’ means much more to the way the characters live their life, whether they have an ‘education’ or not, and how their relationship is to Jenny’s enormous appetite for learning and for a life that she cannot describe yet.”
With a near 15-year age gap between the two lovers in An Education, there is a lingering question of why older men figure prominently into the “coming of age” of young women. “The movie is less about a man falling in love with a sixteen year old girl,” said Molina. “It’s more to do with a man trying to rediscover what it’s like to be sixteen himself.” With her wise-beyond-years firmament of book knowledge, combined with a gamine’s beauty, everybody will fall in love with Jenny. Her teacher Miss Stubbs (Williams) seems envious of her, her mother and father hang on her every word, and David’s friends Danny and Helen (Cooper and Pike) accept her into the fold with very little questioning. Jenny, though, at first, is oblivious to this secret power she possesses. Only the school’s headmistress (Thompson) can see through her inadvertent manipulations and youthful hubris by the films end, delivering a scathing monologue that finally snaps Jenny back into reality after a gauzily romantic detour.
“Oh man, everything is great about working with Emma Thompson,” said Mulligan. “I’ve held her up quite high since I was about ten. We shot everything in one day. I mean, you just walk into a room when you have to act with someone like that and just know that you don’t want to be the weak link. It was exciting and kind of nerve-racking, which was probably useful for most of it. And she’s so completely normal. She knew the first names of everyone on the crew by eleven in the morning. There’s a scene where she’s writing stuff – and you know, she takes her work very seriously, but she was writing these things while she was talking to me and delivering these lines and then every time she hands over the piece of paper, the prop guy was, like, breaking down, because she was writing really obscene things on every piece of paper! Like, really dirty. She’s just awesome. It was the best day.”
It’s great to see a young actress with such range and complexity and depth as Mulligan seems to possess. Last year I happened to catch her on Broadway in Anton Chekov’s The Seagull opposite Sarsgaard and Kristin Scott Thomas, where she gave a subtle, graceful performance as Nina. I left the theater not thinking about the stars so much as Mulligan, and the same is true of her performance in An Education, where she brings a sharp cleverness and realness to her character, which could have been a disaster in the wrong young lady’s hands.
Mulligan is not the obvious choice, and that’s why she works so well here. As her naivety crumbles and she begins to learn about cruelty from the new gang she has taken up with, the actress wisely chooses to underplay the cynicism and keeps a distinct sense of wonder, of goodness, firmly in Jenny’s back pocket, even when everything she has worked for: her relationship with David, her connection to her parents, her education and her plans begins to slip away from her. She is so resourceful, though, that she knows what she must do. She can be a self-made young woman, she can move forward on her own steam.
An Education brings up a very important question that is just as relevant now as it was in the ‘60s, where the film is set: what is the importance of a degree? What does it mean now? Does it guarantee you anything to get a piece of paper from a school with an excellent reputation? or does it mean nothing in the end if you don’t follow your heart? Luckily for Jenny, she is able to circumvent all of these problems, humbled by the truth, broken by seduction, and caught up in the fantasy of losing oneself in an imagined world of desire. Sometimes that can seem an awfully attractive place when the alternative is keeping your nose in a book for eight years. Jenny finds a balance, and makes the viewer believe that they can as well.
“Coming of age” has never been so singularly feminine, yet universal. “The only thing that I have to be able to do is make sure I can defend it, morally,” said Scherfig. “That I can show it to my own daughter without feeling that I am hurting her. In a way, I feel that the film has a worthier message to a young girl than many of the ‘chick flicks’ that she sees.”