Wednesday, October 28, 2009

An Education (09 Scherfig C-)

Films like An Education exist to remind us how spoiled Mad Men has made us.

Here we have a film set in England the early 60's, on the cusp of various youth-driven revolutions; where the old guard barely held back a wall of social, sexual and cultural liberation that we recognize is only a few years away from busting through. Furthermore it's a film swathed in lovingly recreated period detail. Every costume, automobile and strand of hair feels picture perfect, evoking a time where the beautiful people seemed to radiate casual glamour. The film would seem to do for swooning Anglophiles what the gang at Sterling Cooper does for their American cousins every week.

Yet for all it superficially gets right, An Education falters in breathing energy and passion into what is ostensibly a swirling, turbulent affair at its center, or for that matter placing it in a larger social context. It is first and foremost a museum piece, safely tucked away behind glass with all those pesky emotions neatly compartmentalized. Aggressively middlebrow and ultimately cowardly in its revisionism, the film never transcends mere nostalgia for the era, only finding reason for existence in the chaste nuzzling between anointed star in the making Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard as her older, morally compromised lover.

Based on a memoir by British journalist Lynn Barber, Mulligan stars as Jenny a 16-year-old school girl destined for higher learning at Oxford at the gentle yet firm prodding of her middle class parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour). A bright student frustrated that her appreciation of the arts and culture is to be limited to one of cello lessons and stuffy school recitals, Jenny is understandably smitten with David (Sarsgaard), an older, well-travelled man in a sports car who she meets while waiting on a bus in the rain. David says all the right things and has glamorous friends and exotic interests. He quickly seduces not only Jenny but her initially weary parents, who come to see him as a shortcut for their daughter into affluence and high society.

Yet all is not quite what it seems. As David sweeps her off her feet, whisking her away to night clubs and trips to Paris (much to the consternation of the teachers and administrators at her school, here embodied by Olivia Williams and Emma Thompson) he keeps much to himself like where he actually lives and how exactly he makes his money. Could this dashing man, who's shown to be an especially gifted liar, be misleading the naive young girl who has fallen hopeless in love with him? Or for that matter, is there any way the film's title is not meant to be taken in a forehead-slapping ironic way?

An Education was adapted by British novelist Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy) whose works are often defined by a knowing specificity of pop culture and the ways in which it defines his characters, a specificity that's distractingly absent here. Jenny frequently extols the exciting films and music she's experiencing, yet the film remains oddly noncommittal in embracing the politics and culture of the era. Instead the film offers up a shrug and offhand dismissal in response to the civil unrest of the time, while discretely name checking classical music as an example of how a teenage girl chooses to cut loose.

The only thing that seems to excite the film and its characters are the post World War II London costumes and art direction, rendering the film as antiseptic and detached as an episode of Masterpiece Theater. Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners) beautifully frames Ms. Mulligan in puppy dog sweet tableaus while nestled in the arms of Sarsgaard, dolling her up to resemble Audrey Hepburn in the flesh (a visual echo that has lead some misguided male critics to equate their talent). Yet both Jenny's passion and disappointment are strictly of the stiff upper lip variety. Mulligan feels like a passive voyager on this journey, whisked along by the events of her life, alternating between wide-eyed wonder and stunned sadness. The actress never really sells the giddy excitement of being fawned over by a wealthy older man nor the sense of betrayal at uncovering the truth about the life that he's kept from her.

Yet it's ultimately the audience that suffers the greatest betrayal. The film feels confused as to how much of a feminist statement it's willing to make about what it means to be a self-sufficient woman of the world. In the end, the film rewards Jenny for her fickleness and the abandonment of her dreams with nary a hint of lasting consequence. In essence, An Education ends up embracing the patronizing mentality it seemingly sets out to dispel. Ultimately the film is comfort food for The Reader crowd where all that matters is that everyone feels like they've comes away having learned an important life lesson for their troubles. So why is it I'm the one who feels like I've just had a ruler whacked across my knuckles?

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