Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Conventional Education Passable But Not Stellar

An Education

The Golden Globes were announced yesterday which means we now must endure weeks of the “who got snubbed” debates. Personally I do not really care for the Golden Globes. I find they often tend to nominate the films/television shows that will ensure the biggest celebrity turnout for their telecast. Still, I cannot bash the Golden Globes as there are times when they do get their nominations and winners right. One film in particular this year, An Education, has been appearing on many critics' “top ten" lists for Best Pictures of the Year. Surprisingly it did not make the cut for the Globes. The film only received one nomination, Best Actress, for Carey Mulligan’s phenomenal work in the film. Some may consider this a huge snub but I actually think they made the right choice.

Set in the early 1960's, sixteen year-old Jenny Mellor (Carey Mulligan)lives with her parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) in the London suburb of Twickenham. Her father, Jack (Molina), wants nothing more than to see his daughter attend Oxford. Though Jenny is a gifted student, her marks in Latin may hinder her chances of being accepted at the prestigious school. While heading home one day Jenny meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), a charming man more than twice her age. David exposes Jenny to an exciting world that she that she only dreamed about. As Jenny and David become closer, Jenny is forced to question what is the true value of an education?

As coming-of-age tales go, An Education is a rather enjoyable film but far from great. Sure it was nice to see a film like this from a young woman’s perspective that did not involve “magical fitting pants” or a big “prom” scene at the end. The reason this film works well at the level it does is partly because of the era it is set in. Since there were limited options for women at the time, it makes it a little easier to believe that Jenny’s parents would be charmed by this man who is more than twice her age. It also allows for many of the characters to observe what is happening without really speaking up against it.

While I did like the film it must be noted that An Education is rather light on substance. Which is rather odd, especially considering the subject matter that is in the film. The problem is An Education never bothers to give us any real insight into David at all. Sure we see how he gets his money, but you never really see what makes him truly tick. The final arc offers a little snippet but it only serves as a launch point for the all too sweet ending. As a result Sarsgaard is not given much to work with and provides the weakest performance in the whole picture. Peter Sarsgaard is a great actor who usually nails his roles. Yet he only seems to hit one-note, "creepy man-child", through this entire picture. After a while I found myself being more interested in the possible relationship between Jenny and David’s friend, Danny (Dominic Cooper). Come to think of it, I would have preferred if Sarsgaard and Cooper had actually switched roles. Cooper exuded far more charisma in his minor role than Sarsgaard did in the whole picture. Frankly the majority of the cast outshines Sarsgaard in the film.

Carey Mulligan and Alfred Molina are definitely the main reasons that the film kept me interested as long as it did. Mulligan carries the entire film on her back and is nearly flawless will doing so. She provides a refreshing and realistic portrayal of what it is like to be a teenage girl. Although the picture is set in the 1960’s she truly makes her character timeless. Molina is great as Jenny’s father as he hits all the right comedic and dramatic notes. The thing I like about Molina’s work here is that he truly understands his characters motives. Jack only wants the best for his daughter but his ambitions for her success blind him to the reality of the situation. Take away Mulligan and Molina and An Education is really much ado about nothing. While the film is not as deep as it appears to be, An Education is still worth seeing if nothing else for the performances.


  1. Wow! Interesting that you were left col by the movie. I loved it (as I think you know by know), and was especially drawn to the notion that Jenny ends up learning so much more from life than she does from school...including the lesson as to why she needs to stay in school!

    Any possibility it was just overhyped by the time you saw it?

  2. @ Hatter - I would not necessarily say it left me cold, as I did enjoy the film, it is more that I did not “love” the picture like most critics do. Oddly enough the hype was not a factor either. I just felt whole film played things a little too safe. Jenny’s relationship with David is disturbing for several reasons but, instead of truly diving into it, the director takes a more whimsical approach to it. Only in the final act does the film finally decide to talk about the big elephant in the room, for only a few minutes mind you, and then wrap things up in a nice package again. The film made me smile but I was craving something deeper.

    On a side note, I recently saw a trailer for the film Fish Tank ( seems to cover the same ground as An Education but with a much darker tone. I am looking forward to seeing how the two films match up.


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