Principal Cast : Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike, Alfred Molina, Cara Seymour, Emma Thompson, Olivia Williams, Sally Hawkins, Matthew Beard, Ellie Kendrick, Ashley Rice.
Synopsis: A young schoolgirl, Jenny Mellor, meets a charming older man, David, who shows her the world in a way she’s only dreamed of. Caught between wanting to explore this world, and remaining with her studies to achieve her long held dream of attending Oxford University, Jenny must make a decision which will affect the rest of her life.
I went into this film with almost no expectations save one: lead actress Carey Mulligan (2005’s Pride & Prejudice, And When Did You Last See Your Father?, Public Enemies) was nominated for an Oscar in a leading role for her performance here, so I was watching her with great interest. Mulligan aside, I knew almost nothing about this film, as it had never really interested me. An Education seemed more or less and art-house kind of film, a character study that looked as magnificently boring as it looked magnificently shot. I am pleased to announce, then, that I misjudged this film completely. Not only is is a magnificently shot character study, but it’s a really well acted one, and certainly worth your while to watch. It’s always good to watch a film that exceeds your expectations, even if those expectations were to be sleeping through the last half. Thankfully, though, An Education has more going for it than a simple art-house mentality. It’s a confounding film in its simplicity, and in execution succeeds tremendously. I know, I know, I’m gushing rampant praise upon it without qualifying my remarks, but the truth is that I’m more impressed with a less promoted aspect of the film. I call you out to witness the wonderful acting of one Alfred Molina. More on him in a moment.
An Education is fairly benign in it’s narrative endeavours. It’s 1961 England, and young schoolgirl Jenny Mellor (Mulligan) is a straight A student finishing her high-school year with intentions of going to Oxford. Her father, Jack (Molina) is an uptight, highly strung family man with one eye on his daughters future prospects and the other on the family budget. So when Jenny meets David (Sarsgaard), a handsome and wealthy older man, and discovers the more pleasurable side of life, her focus on further study is perverted. David, however, and his business partner Danny (Dominic Cooper) are involved in some shady dealings in art and property, which Jenny is initially suspicious of, before succumbing to the less restrictive lifestyle David offers. Jenny is exposed to a more Bohemian kind of life, visiting Paris and concerts, jazz bars and other desirable places while with her charming friends. Her father, suspicious and negative towards anything even resembling a good time, is swayed by David’s charms and casual lies to allow his daughter to experience this unintentionally, as he believes it’s going to help her attend Oxford. Of course, the path of love never runs smoothly, and soon, Jenny uncovers a secret that, ultimately, could see her life wasted and consigned to relative obscurity.
While the above paragraph may indicate that An Education does a great deal with its time, in actuality, not a lot really happens. The events and adventures Jenny gets up to while she’s with David are more or less occurring off-screen, allowing the plot to swirl around their budding love, and Jenny’s father’s inability to see that he’s being conned by both Jenny and David. The film is essentially a coming-of-age story, a young girl who thinks she’s a woman, learns after great pain that she isn’t. Danish director Sherfig, whose work until this has been in her native country, shows particular skill at characterisation, rather than action, and her work sparkles with elegant simplicity. Based on the story by High Fidelity scribe Nick Hornby, An Education is less about depicting sexist 60’s England and more about a relationship between father and daughter that’s tested by an interloper with intent unknown. Jenny, David, Danny and Danny’s vapid girlfriend Helen (Rosamund Pike, who appeared opposite Bruce Willis in Surrogates) jaunt about the countryside on “business”, although it’s soon apparent to Jenny that this business isn’t exactly kosher. However, David seems to be falling for Jenny, even proposing at one point. This romance, while seemingly innocent, is destined to derail at some stage, and throughout the film you’re just waiting for the “moment” it happens. And when it does, it’s a jaw dropper.
The casting is particularly good. Mulligan was nominated for an Oscar for her work here as Jenny, a nomination that I am inclined to think wasn’t entirely warranted. Sure, she’s good, but it’s hardly a stretch. Mulligan really inhabits the shoes of her rebellious character quite well, that sneaky glint in her eye and crooked half-smile leave plenty to the imagination. But Oscar worthy? Not sure about that. Sarsgaard, as David, is devilishly good. He’s debonair, smooth as silk and altogether mysterious, something the readily corruptible Jenny finds attractive enough to throw her studies away. But underneath that James Bond swagger is a soul tortured by something, a something that will eventually tear him and Jenny apart. Sarsgaard is a capable actor, and he brings the verisimilitude of the character to stunning, if sad, life. Wonderful performances by Cooper and Pike, and an extended cameo by Emma Thompson, give this film the solid realism it’s dramatic arc requires. But for me, by far and away the best thing about An Education isn’t the Jenny/David plot, the homily to an era of English life long past, or even the rose-tinted style Sherfig chose to film with; no, An Education is a film carried by the performance of one man, Alfred Molina.
Molina has been around Hollywood and cinema for decades. His first major appearance on film was in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, as the guide who betrays Indy during their escape from the cave with the enormous stone ball, before roles in Prick Up Your Ears, Not Without My Daughter and Maverick set him on the road to quality roles ever since. Molina has appeared in numerous blockbusters, including Spider-Man 2 (as Doctor Octopus), Species and The DaVinci Code. He’s also appeared in a number of more low key films, including Chocolat, Magnolia and Boogie Nights, Frida and Silk. With An Education, Molina is central to the journey undertaken by Jenny, as her father and cause of rebellious nature, it’s a role that can only be handled by the most delicate of actors. Molina absolutely nails the part, and having now seen the film, I am appalled he wasn’t recognised alongside Mulligan at the Oscars. Molina delivers by far the films best performance, a nuanced and often comedic portrayal of a man whose single-minded determination to get the best for his daughter is (as a father myself) heartbreaking. Even in the midst of immense betrayal from Jenny, he believes himself to blame, a shoulder-heavy load that twists all we think we know of him until that moment, and he earns our sympathy. I put this to you now: if Molina hadn’t taken this role, if the father had been played by somebody else, would they have been able to do it as much justice? I do not think so. Criminally overlooked during awards season, Molina is one of the true highlights of this film.
An Education is a hard film to quantify without giving away too much. Because not a great deal happens to these characters, and instead we’re invested in their dialogue and conversations (perhaps the film could have been called Some Conversations instead!) there’s not a great deal of plot I can mention due to it’s bearing on the final act twist. An Education is an upbeat story, however, in the midst of all the angst and teen-centric “finding oneself”. I’ll be the first to admit that this film isn’t for everyone, especially if you’re into action and effects. But for those seeking a more overtly intellectual film, a film with genuine heart and good characters at its core, then you need look no further than this little gem. If I can recommend it to you without giving away the story too much, then consider yourself recommended.