After having his novels adapted into feature films by others; either brilliantly (High Fidelity), less brilliantly (About a Boy) or just plain sour (Fever Pitch); Nick Hornby writes his first original screenplay in An Education, based on the real life memoirs of journalist Lynn Barber’s coming-of-age experience in post-war England.
It’s an odd period for the country, stuck between the dour chaos of World War II and the madcap shenanigans of the Swinging Sixties; an adjusting stage Hornby applies to the movie’s heroine, a bright sixteen-year-old high school student named Jenny (Carey Mulligan), on track to become an Oxford student. While this pleases her stickler of a father (Alfred Molina), Jenny herself is unsure of the fixed path already laid out upon her, which opens her up to the seducing of an older gentleman, the freewheeling David (Peter Saarsgard).
Let’s take a moment to get this out of the way. No, this isn’t a movie about statutory rape or pedophilia, since sixteen is the age of consent in England. It’s a non-issue in the story, and the film never brings up the fact that their relationship is inappropriate outside the concern that Jenny is throwing away her future for what’s essentially her first real romance. What David represents is not a predatory threat, but an alternative lifestyle made physical that’s seductive for a sheltered proper schoolgirl who knows only the education that’s already mapped out for her. David’s a kind of new wave sophistication that is learned not from books; but from attending orchestras, dancing in trendy nightclubs, watching Ingmar Bergman films and visiting Paris.
Hornby’s dialogue here isn’t quite as sharp as the voice in his novels, though still teeming with the kind of sardonic wit that doesn’t carry a heavy meaning, but sounds fresh and clever if you just go along with its upscale British sense of humor. Barber’s memoir takes pains to be vivid about how awful her older lover was in bed, while Hornby drops it to the canvas with one swing: “Funny, all that fuss about something that took no time at all,” Jenny coldly states right after losing her virginity.
While perhaps true to Barber’s life, the third act is nothing but a contrite cop-out. An Education raises questions that it couldn’t answer, which makes the film blithe and unsatisfactory. Lectured by her school headmistress (Emma Thompson) for discovering a cultured lifestyle and embracing it, Jenny retaliates with a reasoned criticism towards traditional education. What is the true point of a standardized education system? Why should one go to a good college? This is the whole conflict of the film; two different approaches to education battling inside Jenny. The film should be raising follow-up questions and exploring what each choice leads to. As it turns out, it can just sweep all of that under the rug with one surprise plot development that makes it not even a choice at all.
Authenticity shouldn’t be an excuse, since the script already changed the names and the details of what happened, including adding a sentimental love angle that didn’t exist (in her memoir, Barber claims that she never loved her David—real name Simon—but went along with the relationship because she wanted the perks). Changing the twist to something a little less pat, a little less cliched would’ve been welcomed.
In the end, it’s got a terrific first act that really sells the main character, a middling second that doesn’t seem to know where it’s heading, and a regrettable third act that just kills the whole thing. It is so much better with the smaller, understated scenes; such as when Jenny comes home from the best night of her life to see her mother still slaving in the kitchen at almost midnight because she wants to get the stains off the plates. The look on Mulligan’s face says it all: she would never end up as this way.
I suspect most people would want to see this for one specific reason, and they would get what they’re looking for. I’m talking about Carey Mulligan’s breakout performance as Jenny, of course. She manages to hold her own completely playing against powerhouses like Alfred Molina and Emma Thompson. This is proving ground for the young actress, and if anything, An Education is worth seeing just for the promise of what’s in her future.
"An Education" opens October 16, 2009 and is rated PG13. Drama. Directed by Lone Scherfig. Written by Nick Hornby. Starring Alfred Molina, Olivia Williams, Peter Sarsgaard, Rosamund Pike, Sally Hawkins, Carey Mulligan, Dominic Cooper, Cara Seymour, Emma Thompson.