A young woman falls prey, and is led astray, by a much older man. It’s a story we’ve read (Lolita) and watched (Manhattan) before. The media’s glamorization of the May-December romance is old news by now, mostly because it’s one that most women have lived their own personal version of in some way or another, whether it’s as innocent as a crush on an older professor or as dangerous as a not-so-wise fling with an older coworker. Most of the time, though, the woman is thought of as the one who’s been shattered beyond repair. Rare is it that we get to see a woman live through the older man fiasco and put her pieces back together after the relationship’s demise, but when I sat down to screen the Sony Pictures Classics release An Education, I was pleasantly surprised to find a film that portrays the taboo subject in a different light.
Directed by Lone Scherfig and based on journalist Lynn Barber’s memoir, An Education follows the blossoming of 16-year old Jenny from an adolescent to a woman in early 1960s Britain. Jenny, played with true star-quality performance by Carey Mulligan, is every parent’s dream. She’s the girl who’s the top of her class–every class–and spends her time away from her mountains of books practicing her cello. Although she’s got a slight interest in boys and longs for the glamor and romance of Paris found in her favorite movies and magazines, she lives a mostly hum-drum life. Growing up in post World War II England , Jenny is a teen in transition in a world in transition.
So, it’s no surprise that when a charming local older man named David (Peter Sarsgaard) takes an interest in her, Jenny is intrigued, and eventually seduced. What makes An Education unique though, isn’t who seduces Jenny, but what seduces Jenny. It isn’t David’s sexuality or his alluring off-limits status that draws her in, but rather his sophistication and culture. She’s attracted to his nice clothes, his fine art, his love of foreign music, the gourmet restaurants they eat in, and his fancy friends. He provides her with the access, and eventually the confidence, to the life she’s wanted to pursue for herself. Like any traditional coming-of-age story, we can predict Jenny’s gradual seduction and course of the relationship (do May-December romances ever truly end well?), but what we can’t predict is Jenny’s independence throughout the whole thing– she’s a growing individual who learns leaps and bounds from the choices she makes in life. What I appreciated most about the film is its depiction of a feminine character who retains, and remains proud of, her mental and personal strength even in a time as tumultuous as adolescence.
Much of Jenny’s inner strength is courtesy of Carey Mulligan’s breakout performance. Already hailed by critics and industry insiders as a “nomination-worthy performance”, I was blown away by the layering the actress brings to the role. Mulligan creates a Jenny who is wise beyond her years and incredibly foolish at the same time, a teen who straddles the line between child-like whims and much-longed for adult fantasies. Her emotional honesty reaches to every nook and cranny of her performance, whether Jenny is experiencing the highs of first love, or the pain of self-disappointment. Pretty in a very timeless, elegant every-girl kind of way that can’t help but remind you of Audrey Hepburn, Mulligan magnetic charm helps her steal every scene she’s in.
Peter Sarsgaard also gives a great performance as David, the creepy guy we’re supposed to hate but end up feeling for. The veteran actor, probably best known for his role as Zach Braff’s grave-digging best friend in Garden State, plays the role with a a very boyish charm that fades his age. Alfred Molina, who plays Jenny’s father, also gives a robust, honest performance as a stern dad who truly wants the best for his daughter underneath it all.
Cinematographer John de Borman and screenwriter Nick Hornby (who’s known for his honest romantic feel-good scripts like High Fidelity and About a Boy) together create a beautiful world for Jenny to grow in. Beautiful shots of Jenny’s dreary hometown are contrasted with postcard perfect scenes in Paris and the English countryside. The vivid imagery does wonders for Hornby’s real-deal characters, perhaps some of the best work he has ever done.
Predictable? Possibly. Worthwhile? Definitely. Although some of the coming-of-age bumps in An Education could have been executed in a less- familiar way, ultimately the film gives us a fairly realistic portrayal of the younger-woman older-man dynamic that women will feel a strong relation to. The real reason to catch the film though is to see Carey Mulligan’s career-changing performance– this girl is headed for the A-list, we guarantee it!
An Education premieres in New York and Los Angeles on October 9th.
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