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An Education (2009) ****

March 30, 2010


written by: Nick Hornby (from memoirs by Lyn Barber)
produced by: Finola Dwyer & Amanda Posey
directed by: Lone Scherfig
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving sexual content, and for smoking.
100 Min.
U. S. release date: October 16, 2009
DVD/Blu-Ray release date; March 30, 2010



“An Education” had been on my radar from the time that it was revealed Nick Hornby would be writing a coming-of-age story set in 1961 England. It’s not just that the time period and location interested me but that Hornby, writer of “High Fidelity” and “About a Boy”, would be writing about a girl instead of a boy. This screenplay would be adapted from memoirs of British journalist, Lynn Barber which only further added to my curiosity. Would Hornby’s clever trademark dialogue suffer in a different setting, writing for  a female protagonist from a story that was not his own?  


Not at all. In fact, this Oscar-nominated script can easily be considered as one finely crafted addition in Hornby’s bibliography. We may be used to Hornby writing about men who are uncertain about where they are and who they are in life, he’s not journeying through completely foreign ground here though. Like those men, this is the story about a teen girl who embarks on a captivating yet frightening detour as she attempts to find her place in life as well. Here is a film that rises above the traps of genre conformity by displacing solid characterization and a confidently mature tone throughout, making it a captivating viewing experience.  

Barber’s screen persona is Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a sixteen year-old who’s been groomed by her parents (Alfred Molina & Cara Seymour) for a future at Oxford. All her time at school, home and anywhere else has been devoted to this aspiration. She soon begins to question whether or not this is something she desires for herself or if she has become an avatar for her father. These thoughts are perpetuated further when David (Peter Sarsgaard), a charming older man comes into her life who introduces Jenny to a world she seems to be missing in life. David introduces her to his friends, Helen (Rosamund Pike) and Danny (Dominic Cooper) and together the four of them hit up the hippest jazz joints, take in fine dining and mingle with the social elite. There is somewhat of a hesitancy at first as Jenny starts out on the outside looking in but she can’t deny the feeling of being treated like an adult.  


She is soon swept up entirely too fast into the adult world beyond her age and understanding. David is quite good with her parents as he virtually has them wrapped around his finger. Her father, Jack goes from overprotective of his daughter to over-supportive of her escapades with David, even to the point of rethinking the education he had encouraged her to work so hard for. As is the case with any news in the life of a teen, word travels fast among her peers and she soon receives concern from her prep school. Both her headmistress (Emma Thompson) and her teacher, Miss Stubs (Olivia Williams), try to impart some words of wisdom to Jenny but by this time, the erstwhile teen knows too much. Jenny has become serious with David or as serious as she has been led to believe. After some painful revelations and sobering experiences, she must return to reality and figure out if she is able to get back on the path she had once resented.  

It may be tempting to write this one off, thinking you’ve seen such a story play out on screen again and again. Sure, this is another story about a teen who comes to realize that things are not always as they seem but there are actually several factors here that make this a story that easily rises above such paint-by-numbers convention. One of those factors is setting. Taking place in “proper” England before the introduction of feminism gives the character of Jenny an added motivation to buck what is expected of her and embrace the attractive lifestyle of David and his friends. Even as she sees the uncomfortable reality of such living, it’s hard to fight the glitz and glamor of it all. It could be argued then that this is just the right time and period for this story to be convincingly told through these characters.  

Regardless of the appropriate time and place for such a story, a director needs a capable cast to truly lose an audience in such a world. That’s exactly what Scherfig has here. Each actor makes deliberate, nuanced decisions for their role that make them an integral part of the film’s genuine tone. The result is something similar to a seamless chorale where we hear each part allowing the other to breathe yet live within the same musical journey. At first, I thought Molina was slightly miscast as Jenny’s oblivious father but over time a tenderness rises to the surface that reveals how right he is for the role. The same could be said for Seymour, who may not have many lines but makes up for it in body language and revealing expressions. You get the idea she sees herself in Jenny and may have had her desires extinguished when she was her daughter’s age. Both parental roles are important to establish where Jenny is coming from and what she might turn into and both actors convey that there is more going underneath these characters then we might initially believe.  

Thompson and Williams excel in the two standout roles that play an important part in Jenny’s reentry into reality. She could have played the stereotypical English headmistress, all stiff and restrained, but Thompson portrays a needed soundboard for Jenny, understanding yet firm. Then there is Williams who Jenny comes at first mocks as a sell-out but then comes to see as a valued role model.  She knows Jenny is acting stupidly, yet Miss Stubbs displays a great deal of warmth and kindness toward her, hoping that she will come around.  


As much as the supporting cast becomes an invaluable ensemble cast, it’s impossible to not follow the film’s two leads everywhere they go. Saarsgard has played his share of detestable roles, knowing just how to balance smarm with charm but he brings a layer of vulnerability to David, making us almost pity him in the end….almost. Undeniably, the film belongs to Mulligan in a performance that not only earned her an Oscar nomination but also ensures that she is one to watch in the future. She superbly meets the hefty task of conveying a range of emotions, which is no foreign ground for a typical teen. She is stubborn and petulant yet also endearing and transparent. Like a knowing parent, Scherfig is aware of the treasure she has in  Mulligan and gives her ample room to embody Jenny on the screen  

As frustrated as we get with Jenny, we still want her to succeed and that’s exactly what this film does as a whole. It’s a timeless tale told in a timely manner that has it’s share of uneasy moments that draw us to a closer understanding of who these characters are. As much as we may find ourselves frowning upon the choices made by them, we can relate to people who want something different for themselves even if they know it’s something they should not pursue. Hornby once again shows us that the pains we experience through our actions and mistakes are all a part of the education that  life delivers.  



4 Comments leave one →
  1. Lauri permalink
    March 30, 2010 3:38 pm

    I loved reading your review, David, and I agree with what you wrote, wholeheartedly. This was easily my 2nd favorite film of last year (after The Hurt Locker).

    The setting was what grabbed me – I lost myself in 1960 London. It was visually stunning, enticing, and exciting. I could imagine myself as that 16 year old, and I wanted to be there, in her shoes.

    The acting was superb. Mulligan and Sarsgaard stood out, for sure, but I especially appreciated those smaller roles played by Emma Thompson and Olivia Williams.

    I think I’m going to get on Amazon and buy this. I know I can watch it again and again and again!

    • David J. Fowlie permalink*
      March 30, 2010 10:25 pm

      Thank you, Lauri. Olivia Williams has had me since “Rushmore”, I’ll watch her in anything.

  2. windi permalink
    March 30, 2010 9:49 pm

    interesting. I hadn’t actually considered this movie, but after reading your review it might be a good one to sit up and watch one evening while Matt is off at work….


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