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An Education

dir: Lone Scherfig
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If I was to tell you that this flick is the coming-of-age tale of a private schoolgirl seduced by an older, sophisticated man, then you’d tell me that this is clearly a porno or at the very least a remake of Rochelle, Rochelle, an young girl’s erotic journey from Milan to Minsk.

If I was then to tell you that it is nothing of the sort, and if I apologised profusely for having made a Seinfeld reference in one of my reviews, then you’d probably still not be interested in what is otherwise quite a charming little flick set in the early part of the 1960s.

Based on the memoirs of journalist Lynn Barber, with a screenplay written by Nick Hornby (of High Fidelity and About a Boy fame), An Education is set in 1961, and looks at what goes on in the life of an intelligent but unworldly girl called Jenny (Carey Mulligan), who comes across the path of a charming and sophisticated (from her limited perspective) older man called David (Peter Sarsgaard).

See, you could only get away with setting a flick like this in the 60s. Back in those halcyon days, the creepy setup looks a little less creepy. Back then you are meant to see it a little bit more as people being a product of their times, and acting accordingly. It's still creepy, but, y'know...

It makes it sound like it’s all about one thing, and it’s not. Sure, a seduction lies at the heart of the tale of woe, but it is more the seduction of an otherwise sensible young girl by a lifestyle she could only ever imagine before, let alone approach.

It’s specifically because Jenny has had so little exposure to the city, and the things that might go on there, and so little experience of anything outside her overbearing father (Alfred Molina), her cello classes and her studies, that David and his friends seem like such decadent aristocratic stars.

The thing is, it’s only to a teenage girl that these people could be what they appear to be, because to the viewer, they are anything but the sophisticates she desperately needs them to be.

Sure, Jenny’s flattered by the attentions of an older man, who has a car and takes her out, buys her stuff and pours drinks down her throat, and she’s the envy of every other clueless one of her peers. And her parents too get seduced, or at least charmed, by David’s winning ways.

But we’re not naïve enough to take David at his word. From the moment when he introduces himself into Jenny’s life, we are ultra wary of him, and with good reason, because there’s never a good reason for a man that age to be sniffing around teenage girls. And someone who’s as vague about his origins as David is, and as comfortable with bending the truth as he can be, is rarely if ever going to be on the level.

It’s a credit to the script that the direction where it seems to be going isn’t like the cautionary tales that I recall of yesteryear, where a girl in this position ends up being sold into white slavery, or a drug addict, or both. This is a much more basic and heartfelt rendering of the confusion a girl like Jenny would or could feel in such a situation. She’s not a moron, in fact far from it. She’s highly accomplished academically, and has the intention or the hope of studying English at Oxford. Her real problem is that in her head she has a powerful idea of what this party lifestyle is supposed to be like, and though she clearly sees how little David and his cohorts conform to the demimonde world from French movies and novels, even with the lowering of her expectations, she still thinks it’s superior to anything else she has going on in Birmingham.

It’s a testament to Britain that so much of it can be used in a period piece set nearly 50 years ago without having to change a thing. The rows and rows of similar depressing houses only emphasise why David has such power over Jenny’s imagination, because he can temporarily take her away from her hard and boring life, and there is also the at first unspoken, and then explicit potential promise to be permanently taken away from all this misery.

And what a miserable life it truly is, eh? All study and cello and Latin this and Jane Eyre that. How does that compare with champagne breakfasts, fancy chamber music recitals and evenings at the dog races? Pretty swanky, eh?

The real gem buried within this story, for me, is the understated role played by Rosamund Pike as Helen, the partner of David’s partner in crime, the supremely louche Danny (Dominic Cooper). Such a story would lend itself to Helen being an arch sophisticate, Evelyn Waugh-esque raconteur and rapier wit. Instead she’s just a woman who ended up where she is for whatever reason. She exists neither to threaten and belittle Jenny, nor to present her with an example of her potential doom. She might look beautiful and elegant, but she has no illusions as to her place in David and Danny’s world, or any illusions about her less than ethical friends. She doesn’t see the potential ruin of Jenny’s hopes and dreams by what David is doing to her: she just sees a fresh girl having some fun for the first time in her short life.

The best way this is represented is when they go to a musical performance near Westminster Abbey, and Jenny throws a French phrase into one of her sentences. It’s perhaps a bit drawn out, but Helen keeps badgering Jenny as to what it is that she said, and why.

At first it looks like Helen is trying to embarrass Jenny for being a try-hard, for mispronouncing some basic line in French, in other words, for being gauche. But as the scene proceeds, Helen is genuinely incredulous as to why Jenny would say something in French. The beauty of this scene is that it shows how little Jenny’s preconceptions about the “high” life conform with the reality, and that Helen and Jenny’s place is simply one open to attractive girls. David and Danny, being the charming but cold-eyed “businessmen” that they are, happily impose the limits on the girls’ exuberance as they see fit.

For Jenny, even when the cracks begin to appear in the façade she self-creates and sustains, with too much help from David, she simply can’t believe that the glimpse of life away from her home is anything less than the be all and end all she believes and needs it to be. It doesn’t even come down to the concept of love or an adolescent crush. I don’t think the words “I love you” are even spoken throughout the flick. Even as Jenny and David get to Audrey Hepburn their way around Paris to the most clichéd post card shots and strains of old French pop music you could conjure, it’s romantic in the sense other than that truly, madly passion that makes people want to kill themselves at that age.

Or worse, of course. As the relationship seems to be getting more and more serious, and more and more meaningful, even as Jenny begins to understand how shifty David really is (though not his full measure of shiftiness, which is reserved for the film’s climax), her choices put her deeper in danger of fucking up the life she wants to lead.

But then, that becomes her question: What kind of life does she want to lead? The “hard and boring” one of knuckled-down study and riding around Oxford in those poncy gowns, leading to a hard and boring job as a teacher, or the fun and frivolity of being on the arm of a man who can take her to fancy dinners and nightclubs at the dog races? The most universal point of identification for anyone with this material, male or female, isn’t remembering the age that she’s at when it’s happening, at 16-17. It’s the desire to tell one’s younger self not to make one of those fundamentally fucked up decisions that even had you had all your wits about you at the time, you still probably would have gone down that path of most or least resistance anyway.

To your eternal regret. It’s a terrible thing to have the intelligence that indicates you should know better about a given person or a given situation, but to lack the experience that would put your experience in context. The getting of wisdom, unfortunately, like the education that her boorish father keeps touting at her, comes at a great price.

It is hard to appreciate why, in general, the prospect of Jenny not going to Oxford is such an apocalyptic one. I understand in terms of specifics why it’s important to Jenny and her father, since they talk about little else (apart from how dreamy David is), but why we’re supposed to appreciate that Jenny not going to Oxford, or not being married off at 17, means she’d be better off dead, is a mystery to me. Maybe I’m not understanding the unique cultural context of British tertiary education in the 1960s, but I can’t see why her going to some ‘lesser’ college would have doomed her to a life of sleeping in gutters and sex in laneways.

Jenny is wonderfully well acted, and lived in by the actress. She’s a delightful character, even as she becomes more frustrating towards the end. Part of you (especially the parental part) wishes you could shake her when she’s blaming other people for falling for deceptions she herself helped to sustain, but she more than makes up for it with her final realisations about her own culpability. She’s a delight, and what I liked especially is that, in the same way that David and his circle really aren’t that glamourous or that cool, nor is she that much more than just a plain but bright schoolgirl playacting at being an adult.

Peter Sarsgaard, to me, always looks shifty and perverse, so it never comes as a surprise when his characters are revealed to be scumbags. David’s motivations, beyond the desire to fuck schoolgirls, are a mystery to us, increasingly, as his actions become more untenable as the story progresses. But they were and probably still remain mysterious to the girl this tale happened to, so we join her in her confusion. He’s well played, but I have to note that the only reviewers that compliment him on his “flawless” accent, Sarsgaard being an American, are American reviewers, to whom that accent is consistent and great. Humbly I’d suggest that, to use the technical term, that’s bullshit. Generally he does a good enough job, but there are some scenes where he is either creepier or less comprehensible than I thought he intended, especially when he’s talking strange baby-talk to Jenny relating to their bedroom exploits. The ‘romantic’ hymen related scenes are awkward and creepy, and so they must have been, and so they should be.

The supporting cast is good enough as well, with Emma Thompson putting in a brief but welcome appearance as either the principal of Jenny’s school or Margaret Thatcher, I’m not sure which one. Olivia Williams is also wonderful as a sympathetic teacher who understands what Jenny is potentially throwing away for nothing more than some Chanel No. 5 and some cheap champagne, the hussy.

There’s one small, thankless part I want to single out because of the scientific advance it represents. At the same time as David is sweeping Jenny off her feet and out of her panties, a young boy her age clumsily tries to woo her as well. The part isn’t that impressive, but what amazes me is that it proves human cloning can work. Clearly the guy playing Graham (despite the name being Matthew Beard), is a younger clone of Hugh Grant, because no-one, and I mean no-one, gives that stuttering flailing kind of performance unless they’ve studied at the feet of Hugh Grant, or they’ve been cloned from the stem cells derived from the feet of Hugh Grant. Remarkable progress, chaps.

I’m not going to say that I loved it, because I didn’t (not being a girl), but I did enjoy it well enough. I’m somewhat mystified as to the incredible critical reaction in the film’s favour, but I can’t really fault people for enjoying a well made and well acted film, since this film lacks the sheer drudgery obligated by most flicks the critics are usually unanimous about (all independently, of course, of each other).

7 times it took far less than the promise of Paris to result in the loss of my virginity out of 10

“I feel old but not very wise.” – for some of us, that feeling never goes away, whether you’re 17 or 37, An Education.