An Education is a film set in 1960s London and follows the story of a 16-year-old schoolgirl, her heart set on Oxford, and the way her outlook on her future change when an older man takes a liking to her. The film essentially launched Carey Mulligan’s career, earning her an Oscar nomination for her leading performance. It also stars Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike, and Emma Thompson, and was adapted from Lynn Barber’s memoir by Nick Hornby, acclaimed scribe of About a Boy and Brooklyn.
I’d been meaning to watch this film for quite a while, and finally got down to it yesterday. I’d heard a lot about it, mainly about Mulligan’s performance. And yet, despite all I’d heard, I somehow had the wrong idea about the tone of this film. The premise of the film sort of paints its own picture; one of grittiness and burn-out-syndromes. Or, at least, that was what I envisioned when I read the premise. I assumed it was going to project a warning in what we’ll call a Beautiful Boy kind of direction.
But that wasn’t the film I saw. We’ll get to the messaging in a minute; while remarkable, it wasn’t as large a surprise to me as compared to the tone of the film. From a very interesting opening sequence, the film’s pulse is a lot lighter, more innocent than I saw coming. It’s really funny, and genuinely has you guessing in moments about whether or not her decisions aren’t completely valid. This might be a result of other films I’ve seen that cover similar thematic material, but I wasn’t expecting to be as sold as I was in the early stages about on the potential positives of what she was doing. It’s impressive writing, and two particularly strong performances from Sarsgaard and Mulligan, that make this film very watchable, very easy to digest, and give it a plausible balance between the impending assumption that something’s about to go horribly wrong and the innocent play of the story. It amounts to a tone that, far from bringing the gloom I anticipated, actually allows for some intellectually sound whimsy, balanced very well with the more intense, reality-check scenes (one in particular comes to mind, with much credit to Molina).
Of course, a warning is a component of what this film communicates. Jenny makes mistakes, real ones, and she suffers very real consequences for them, but there’s a larger idea that comes across in her character. She’s not a burnout, she never was, and she doesn’t become one over the course of the film. The bad choices she makes are hers, but there’s an argument that’s made about the point of education, and the way the future is, for want of a better term, marketed, to young people. The fact that Jenny, the intelligent and sound of mind young woman that she is, would turn to an older man, this older man specifically, and the life of colour that comes with him, over the alternative that’s presented to her, the supposedly dull, unexciting life that follows an education, is a reflection of the fact that we spend entirely too much time focusing on the product, the end result when we talk to our children about school and education in general, the ideology brought out exceptionally well via Molina’s performance, and not nearly enough time answering the question “why?”. Possibly my favourite moment in the film is near its end, when Jenny sees her teacher’s flat (played by Olivia Williams), and the real end product of it all is revealed to her. It’s a really potent point, and, as someone who just finished up with the high school system, it’s something that could stand to be mentioned more along the way.
All of this is achieved a result of some real heavy lifting from a fantastic cast and crew. The opening sequence, which demanded a certain amount of animation, really stood out for me as a mood-setter. The performances are great all-around. Obviously special mention must go to the two leads, particularly Mulligan, but Alfred Molina and Rosamund Pike are fantastic as well. Molina actually lands the emotional centre of the film, a scene outside Jenny’s bedroom near the end. And, as is almost always the case, the quality of the performances compliment the quality of the characters on the page, and for that we have a fantastic screenplay from Nick Hornby to thank.
All in all, a fantastic film. An Education hits all the right emotional notes, lands its comic relief when it needs to, does it at an expert enough rate to maintain a tone for a thoughtful coming of age film (as opposed to simply a PSA), and makes a subtle point in an unsubtle way. But, aside from the intellectual idea put across here, I was also really appreciative of another point of communication for this film, specifically, the way they address making mistakes. It’s a refreshing thing to see, in a modern world that condemns even the smallest mistakes, a film that chooses to forgive its character at the end, and remind the audience that no mistake, however large, necessarily defines any person entirely. The depiction of that is a tad rushed; a flaw in the design, but not one that sinks a very sturdy ship. An Education is a fantastic film that I’d recommend to anyone.
– Aman Datta
Aman’s Score – 84/100