An Education

by Jake Meaney

26 April 2010

To focus squarely on Carey Mulligan's overriding cuteness – and it’s hard not to – would be to do a disservice to the genuine chops she brings to the table.
cover art

An Education

Director: Lone Scherfig
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike, Olivia Williams

(Sony Picture Classics)
US DVD: 30 Mar 2010

Review [9.Oct.2009]

Despite what you may have heard, the key to Carey Mulligan’s adorableness is not her dimples. Or it’s not just her dimples… Okay, well, fine, you got me – it’s mostly her dimples. They are truly delightful, nearly miraculous, popping up effortlessly with a quick crinkle of her nose, a flash of her infectious smile; two neat little divots that would launch a thousand ships—or at least the collective swooning of critics – and command the attentions of skeevy older men.

Make no doubt about it – Mulligan is cute. Really cute. Impossibly cute. Unbearably cute. However, to focus squarely on this overriding cuteness – and it’s hard not to – would be to do a disservice to the genuine chops she brings to the table, a complex performance that elevates what could have been a clichéd role into something both fresh and timeless. An Education is not a great movie (though it is, at times, very good), but Mulligan’s turn as schoolgirl Jenny nearly makes it so.

It’s a neat trick, using Mulligan’s charms both to elevate the movie above being a forgettable bauble and to transform the tone of the film into something totally opposite of what it should be. Her smile; her ebullience; those damn dimples – they charm you, but they also distract. They are meant to deflect, to divert your attention from what’s really going on here—and mostly they do. They have to, something has to, since the film is trucking a rather unseemly relationship—veering uncomfortably close to Lolita territory. Fortunately it comes off, in the end, as a winsome, breezy old school May/December romance, a story of youthful folly rather than tragic predation.

That it succeeds (mostly) at pulling off this trick is testament not only to Mulligan’s charm, but Peter Sarsgaard’s smoothness and wile, as well. The con game he plays, the lies he effortlessly unspools – tricking the girl, tricking her parents, tricking himself – is the other key to how An Education lures us in and enthralls us. She (and we) wants, so much, to believe that her good fortune, his romantic promises and glamorous lifestyle, are all real; a new exciting world opening up beyond the carefully regimented and restricted life of suburban adolescence. He feeds straight into Jenny’s schoolgirl fantasies of late nights in jazz clubs, days spent in art auction houses, and jetting off to Paris at the drop of a hat. He knows just what she wants, and even when she occasionally starts to see the façade slip, he’s able to reel her back in.

An Education lets Jenny off easy at the end; she is as much complicit in maintaining the fantasy as he. Her punishment is having her eyes opened, losing enchantment, being educated in the lies of the world of romance. The conclusion could have been brutal, but that would have been a betrayal of the breezy tone of the film, and needlessly cruel besides. 

If you go back and rewatch it, it’s all right there – the awareness, the pain—hiding in plain sight. Mulligan’s great talent is channeling all the subtleties of Jenny’s roiling emotions across her face without ever having to articulate them explicitly. With a slight turn, of her mouth, of her head, you see straight through to her soul (an old soul struggling out of its young body).

You can see it in her eyes, an impish gleam of knowing that vanishes as soon as it appears, a flash of impatience with adolescence that melts into schoolgirl giggling.  Yu can see it in how she slumps into a chair after her the world comes crashing down around her head in a hard rain of hard truth.You can see it in the crush of expectation, the weariness of having to trudge through an assigned role, as it drags down the sides of her mouth. Finally, you can see it in the keen glint of adult understanding as she looks back on her brief affair.

While the end of An Education verges on the trite – the inevitable revelations tumble down quickly, and the fallout is abrupt – an alternate version of how the film could have turned out, especially in its denouement, is buried among the deleted scenes. The first batch is short and is mostly of quick moments between Jenny and David – a stolen kiss here, a shared smile there. The final few (the deleted scenes are arranged in line with how they’d appear in the film) focus on the increasing wariness of Jenny, who seems to know something is wrong with her relationship before she really knows it for real (see especially David’s cagey excuses about his “apartment” and general living situation).

The aftermath gets more attention – her listless despairing days spent kicked out of school, her life of promise apparently forever off track now – and gives the film a melancholy heaviness that would seem to run counter with the weightlessness of all that preceded. The final deleted scene gives us a confrontation between Jenny and David which finds the tables turned, and Jenny at once dismissively indifferent and verging on contemptuous, David reduced to the naïf. It doesn’t jibe with the rest of the film, and it’s understandable why it was left out – An Education wouldn’t have been nearly the crowd pleaser it is with it left in, though it is a somewhat more traditionally satisfying ending.

In addition to the deleted scenes, An Education boasts a relatively chatty commentary track with director Lone Scherfig, Sarsgaard, and Mulligan. Per usual with these things, most of it concerns on-set anecdotes. Scherfig does point out discrepancies between the memoir the film is based on and the shooting script. Sarsgaard also spends an uncomfortable amount of time fawning over Mulligan on screen to Mulligan on the track, which is either a really neat meta sort of trick (his smarmy commentary reinforcing the skeeviness of his performance in the film) or is really actually kind of real life skeevy (though Mulligan is well into her 20s in real life, so I guess it isn’t actually too Humbert Humbert-ish in the end).

An Education


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