Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Film Review #216: An Education
Director: Lone Scherfig
Cast: Peter Sarsgaard, Carey Mulligan, Olivia Williams

Initially marketed as a vehicle for its male lead, Peter Sarsgaard as the aging playboy David Goldman, Lone Scherfig’s An Education has emerged instead as a showcase for its women. Set in the first stirrings of social ferment of early 1960s London and its suburbs, this fine ensemble film centers on a bright young woman’s detour from her path to Oxford University when she accepts a ride in the rain from a charming sleaze with secrets.

As Jenny, 24-year-old Carey Mulligan is generating Oscar buzz for her witty, nuanced performance as a 16-year-old sampling possible and widely divergent futures. As Jenny’s comrade-side kick in the clandestine adventures of their bad-boy boyfriends, Rosamund Pike as Helen strikes just the right balance between an older, worldlier and eventually tackier woman who fusses with Jenny’s hair and wardrobe now but would be implausible as an appropriate friend later. As the haughty head-mistress whose few short appearances embody distilled and blindered authority, the versatile Emma Thompson is as perfect here as she was in her recent cameo as “sexual legend” in another recent British import depicting roughly the same period, Pirate Radio. As Jenny’s mother, Cara Seymour is well-intended and a little swept-away by the times and her daughter’s slick suitor, but – crucially – never depicted as foolish. (One can say the same for Alfred Molina as Jenny’s dad and for Jenny’s young aspiring boyfriend, who may be a tad bumbling but knows when to make his exit gracefully.)

Then there is Miss Stubbs. As the plain teacher whose literary lessons about Mr. Rochester of Jane Eyre should warn us and Jenny too of what’s coming, Olivia Williams just won the Invisible Woman Award from the national Women Film Critics Circle, given for the performance by a woman most ignored by critics. On the WFCC’s annual awards show, broadcast live from WBAI Pacifica in New York City on December 9th (with a patch-in from WAER 88.3 FM here in Syracuse by yours truly), Chicago film critic Jan Huttner called Williams’ performance as Miss Stubbs “the heart and conscience of the film.” Huttner wondered how come so many male reviewers felt blind-sided by the “sudden” change of tone in the movie’s third act, since Miss Stubbs’ telegraphs the outcome from virtually the first scene – certainly well before David’s partner in crime Danny (Dominic Cooper) rolls his eyes to Helen at David’s fabrications.

Despite being well-liked generally by film reviewers with a 94% positive rating at Rotten Tomatoes, the “consensus” on the film at that site is indeed a caution that “the latter part of the film may not appeal to all [despite being] a charming coming-of-age tale.” But WFCC doubly honored An Education with its annual Karen Morley Award for the film that best exemplifies a woman’s search for identity. For those who prefer An Education as a light romp in which opportunistic older men need see no particular damage done by their dalliances, and may assume that women look back on these events only fondly, the third act does take a dreary turn.

Here, Jenny discovers letters addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. David Goldman” in David’s sports car’s glove-box at the worst possible moment, just as David is driving Jenny and her parents to a restaurant to celebrate their engagement. By now, Jenny has watched David charm her parents in a series of escalating lies about himself and their outings, and she herself has been charmed out of her initial consternation at his business dealings, because – as she says forlornly at one point – before she met him nothing had ever happened in her life. In this moment and in what follows, Jenny discerns the point to this part of her “education” in the shock – so rude when we are at a certain age – that how someone treats others is a fairly reliable prediction of how they will treat us too. Only then is Jenny able to ask Miss Stubbs for help. One might say Jenny – clearly so bright in the film’s opening scene – comes back to her right mind, with a snap of clarity that I found frankly exhilarating.

Interestingly, Danish director Lone Scherfig, perhaps best know for her 2000 film Italian for Beginners, does not take this period piece too deeply into the decade’s rock music and social rebellion. Jenny is not listening to the music broadcast from pirate radio ships anchored in the North Sea, so emblematic of her own generation’s flowering. Jenny is still listening to the steamy older French singer Juliette Greco, her notion of sophistication in a still-out-of-reach, older world. But as the film ends, she’s in Oxford at last, and the Beatles can’t be far behind.

An abbreviated version of this review appears in the 12/17/09 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle on page 12. Read the full roster of WFCC’s 2009 film awards at criticalwomen.net. Thanks to WAER Syracuse for the use of Studio A and continued support. “An Education” continues screening at Manlius Art Cinema through December 24. On Christmas Day, Manlius opens The Young Victoria, which we’ll review in next Thursday’s issue. “Make it Snappy” is a regular film column in the Syracuse City Eagle. Nancy is a member of the national Women Film Critics Circle. Reach her at nancykeeferhodes@gmail.com.