06 November 2009

Not Just Another Brick in the Wall

If Pink Floyd had existed in 1961, 16-year-old Jenny Mellor, the protagonist of Lone Scherfig's film, An Education, who wants to read English at Oxford and who has a habit of slipping into French, mid-conversation, would probably have sung, "On n'a pas besoin d'éducation." However, in French l'éducation really refers to one's upbringing rather anything one might be taught in school whereas in English, the word can mean either and the interactions, overlap and conflicts between the two is a key theme in this film. Interestingly, the French title has remained close to the original title with, Une Education, which loses a lot, in my opinion.

Jenny (played by Carey Mulligan) is the only really bright girl at her expensive private school and is the envy of her friends and delight of her teachers. However, it's 1961 and she lives in Twickenham with her well-meaning but seriously misguided parents and life is dull. Her father Jack, played by Alfred Molina, is desperate for her to go to Oxford but for all the wrong reasons and for him, Jenny's life is all about ticking off various boxes for the Oxford application form. Her mother is more sympathetic and wants Jenny to have a better life than she did but won't stand up to her husband. Jenny's wussy sort-of boyfriend Graham comes round for tea and gets slaughtered by Jack for being Jewish and for not knowing what he wants to do with his life, other than vague plans to go travelling. Error.

Enter David, an arguably charismatic 30-something played by Peter Sarsgaard who charms his way first into Jenny's life and then into that of her parents. It's obvious from the start just how naive her parents are--he has her mother wrapped around his little finger from the second he pulls out the old, "I didn't know Jenny had a sister" line. Her father takes a little more coaxing--what do you mean you want to take my 16-year-old daughter to a concert/Oxford/Paris?--but soon gives in when he decides that David could be just what Jenny needs. After all, he only wants her to go to Oxford so she can meet a nice and (more importantly) rich bloke and not have to worry about working ever again.

And to Jenny, David and his friends Daniel and Helen (played by Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike, who does a great job of playing the dumb blonde ("but in 50 years no one will speak Latin anyway, not even Latin people," she says to console Jenny who just got a B in her A-level Latin mock)) are infinitely glamorous and exciting. They wear nice clothes, go to nice restaurants, go out dancing and to listen to music and to races. They know how to have fun. They also know how to deceive and to steal as Jenny soon discovers after David and Daniel leave an old country house with an old and rare framed map, which they were really "liberating" from its former little old lady owner.

After the initial shock at this revelation, Jenny decides she doesn't care about--or that she won't think about--her boyfriend's wicked ways. It doesn't occur to her that if he's been lying to her about what he does for a living, he might be lying to her about other things. Actually, he does a very good job of avoiding lying to her but there are plenty of big, fat lies of omission, which are revealed later on and she consciously allows him to deceive her parents by telling them they'll be going to Paris with his "Aunt" Helen and that David went to Oxford and studied with C.S. Lewis. But as her parents are actively supporting the relationship--so much so that they encourage her to drop out of school when David asks her to marry him--she has no reason to be wary or afraid, despite the efforts of her English teacher and the headteacher, played by a prim and stern Emma Thompson, to persuade her to stay at school, go to Oxford and get an education in the traditional sense of the world.

Inevitably, it all goes a bit pear-shaped when Jenny discovers a letter addressed to "Mr and Mrs Goldman" in David's car and she has to try to get her life on track. As Jenny is based on Lynn Barber's real-life memoirs, though, you know that she goes to Oxford, meets the love of her life to whom she was married for over 30 years and goes to have a successful career at Penthouse and, over the years, most British national newspapers, so it's hard to be too upset for her. The events of the film An Education form only one chapter of Barber's memoirs, although clearly an important one. One thing that comes across in the book a lot more than in the film is just how bitter Barber was about her parents' failure to protect her from the conman (named 'Simon' in the book, although that wasn't his real name either; confusingly, David was the name of Barber's real-life husband)--in that sense, they didn't give her a very good éducation in the French sense, which Barber attributes to them being first-generation immigrants to the middle classes.

Still, the film was engaging and sweet with a number of very funny lines (and not just those uttered with perfect deadpan delivery by Rosamund Pike) to break up the sappier moments. The acting was particularly good with Carey Mulligan, of course, standing out, and Alfred Molina and Olivia Williams (who plays the English teacher) also doing a great job. Of course, both Jenny, who wants to have fun and go to Paris and hang out with dumb rich people, and her headmistress, who thinks Jenny should do hard, boring things like studying and then become a teacher or a civil servant because she has Potential, turn out to be right: I can't imagine Lynn Barber regrets retaking her A-levels and going to university and yet would her educational experiences--and her life after university--have been quite so interesting had she never met the conman and enjoyed two years of glamour, richness and excitement? Probably not.

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