Here’s the thing about An Education: it’s not a remarkable film, or mould-breaking, or anything novel, but it is simply really good. The sheer fact that a period coming of age film is well written, well acted and well directed is what makes this film so good and was responsible for all its award nominations.
Based on the memoir of British journalist Lynn Barber (no, I haven’t heard of her), it tells the story of Jenny (Carey Mulligan) and her relationship with a charming older man, David (Peter Sarsgaard, doing a very good English accent). She is a good student in school, being primed to do her A-levels and go to Oxford university, but she is dazzled by his urbane sophistication, leading to a slight change in plans.
But the simple story doesn’t reflect the quality of the film. The acting is all really good: Alfred Molina is great as Jenny’s father, completely unaware of how insensitive he is towards his daughter as he gees her towards her place at Oxford but loving her all the same; Sarsgaard is good as the charming man with a secret, coming across as seductive but creepy; Rosamund Pike is delightful as the dim blonde girlfriend of David’s ‘business associate’, playing against the normal casting of her as haughty or icy; and there are wonderful supporting turns from Olivia Williams as Jenny’s concerned teacher and Emma Thompson as the headmistress of the school. Mulligan deserved the attention, the BAFTA award and the Oscar nomination for her performance, because she centres the whole film (especially as she is in nearly every scene) and draws the audience into the story. She must do a good job because she distracted me from the fact that she looks like an English Rachel Holmes, or at least does to me in the film.
The script is really good – Nick Hornby does a great job of understanding the time and place, with characters talking engaging dialogue that is also very funny, and making you care about all of the people in the film. Lone Scherfig brings a light but sure touch to the film, creating a believable suburban London of the 1960s, which I find more impressive because she’s Danish. And the final delight I had in the film was a genuine feeling of surprise in the dark secret that David is hiding – I was misdirected by the dodgy dealings and the mention of Rachman, so for me to admit to being duped is an expression of how much I enjoyed the film.
The only sour note was the making David’s character Jewish, and the use of the stereotyping of the time – yes, the bigotry towards Jews existed, but to make his seductive character Jewish and to link it with the duplicitous money-making schemes, such as stealing valuable items from old people’s houses that they were trying to sell, or moving black families into flats he owned in nice areas so he could buy the houses of the offended neighbours on the cheap when they wanted to sell them quickly because they thought the neighbourhood was going downhill, left a bad taste in my mouth. It is the only imperfection in an otherwise charming, absorbing, life-affirming little movie.