Movie Review: An Education

The beginning of “An Education” might throw you off a bit. For a premise that sounds so trite, the music is so upbeat and unexpected. It’s basically an indicator for what’s to come: a surprising, refreshing, and extremely entertaining British drama.

“An Education” brings us back to a time where many things were accepted and others rejected that we couldn’t even imagine today. Still, something about this time seems alarmingly relevant. The year is 1961, and the location is London. Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a 16-year-old with a love for French music and film. Her real ambitions seem to be to absorb all things cultural. However, she is ruled more by the ambitions of her strict father (Alfred Molina). Therefore, she attends an all girls private school with a goal of getting into Oxford.
Everything in Jenny’s life seems mechanical. Even the cello, which she loves so much, is meant simply as a means of getting her into college. This all changes one day when she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard). David is a Jewish businessman about twice Jenny’s age. He breaks her away from her imprisoned life and introduces her to a world of jazz, gambling, and drinking, amongst other things. Once she sees this new life, she never wants to go back.
Much talk about the film has gone into Carey Mulligan’s performance. All of this talk comes for good reason. I cannot see any other actress stepping into the role of Jenny and doing as fine a job as Mulligan does. She conveys Jenny’s emotion and confusion with absolute perfection, letting both her emotions and her ambivalence guide the story. Mulligan also constantly reminded me of Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” It’s not just for her looks, but for the way she conveys her many complex feelings, and ultimately finds her purpose in life.
Mulligan might be front and center, but she’s not the only great actor on display. Molina is amazing when you think how drawn out his character could’ve been. Instead, he breathes life into his performance and even bring a good deal of humor into his character’s awkwardness. And in his sternest moments, he’s always convincing.
Sarsgaard performance is the most underrated in the film. He has a fascinating ability to be able to act in two different emotions at once, especially with his body language. His smile will suggest a calm amiability, while his cocked eyebrows can suggest a whole different man. This is a rare talent few actors possess, and for this, as well as his convincing British accent, Sarsgaard should be praised more often.
“An Education” does not solely rely on performances for greatness. To tell you the truth, the only thing that got me to see this movie was the Oscar buzz surrounding it. The story sounded like something I’ve seen many times before. However, “An Education manages to take this formula and bring a whole new dimension to it.
For starters, none of the characters are turned into caricatures. None of the adults seem to be putting Jenny through her miserable education simply to torture her. There is always a reason behind each motive. In the end, Jenny’s strict father ends up being as likable as she is.
The whole story is an ode to rebelliousness and non-conformity. This of course isn’t the first film to celebrate these things. What is so great about the story is that it doesn’t seem to be celebrating the wrong kind of rebelliousness. It wants Jenny to find freedom, and find it in the right way. Just as it makes the point that one can’t get an education until they realize why they’re being educated, one can’t truly go their own way until they understand why they’re going in the direction they’re headed.
Some film critics judge how much they like a movie by their emotional connection to it. I don’t do that too often but with “An Education,” I will take a big exception. Jenny’s coming-of-age story reminded me of events I’ve faced recently in my own life, and some words she hears sound a little like things I’ve been told as well. It’s not just what Jenny is told, but her reactions to it that I can relate to so much.
I think what made “An Education” such a unique viewing experience for me is its tone. It could’ve been a film that was darky, moody, and constantly angry. Instead, it remains optimistic throughout. Even when Jenny reaches her lowest point, there is always the reaffirming touch of life in every shot. It’s nice for once to see a film about the machine that is life which doesn’t approach it’s subject in such a pessimistic manner. “An Education” is a film that proves that it doesn’t just matter what story you’re telling, but how you tell it.
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