A Stylish But Morally Ambiguous Romantic Comedy
Film #6: An Education (2009)
Director: Lone Scherfig
After I reviewed 2015’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl my friend and ZekeFilm founder, Jim Tudor, suggested I watch An Education. There are obvious parallels. Both movies are based on coming-of-age memoirs, and both tell the stories of teenage girls in sexual relationships with much older men. Both are set in cultural environments that seem to facilitate the relationships. In Diary of a Teenage Girl the environment is mid-70s San Francisco, with children being raised in the midst of the sexual revolution and drug culture. On the face of it, the setting of An Education is much more protective. It’s middle class, early 60s England; a world of tidy yards, private schools and stay at home mothers. But there’s the catch: when the expectation for young women – no matter how bright or ambitious – was that they would marry and become housewives, it was easier for everyone to not look too closely at a relationship between a young girl and a wealthy, sophisticated man who might secure her future.
An Education was a star-making role for Carey Mulligan, earning her a Best Actress Oscar nomination. She’s just right as Jenny, a high achieving but restless 16 year old.
When the movie was released a lot of comparisons were made between Mulligan and Audrey Hepburn – and I get it. She’s lovely and charming and perfectly wears the period costumes. But Jenny is more shrewd than the typical Hepburn character, less innocent even before meeting David (Peter Sarsgaard), a mid-30s posh who, on a rainy afternoon, stops his car and offers her endangered cello a ride home. David almost immediately gives Jenny relief from the boredom of her life – nothing but school, homework, and listening to her parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) fret over her future. An Education is a romance – but it’s only in part a romance between Jenny and David. What seduces Jenny, really, is the world that David offers – of operas and jazz clubs, fine restaurants, beautiful clothes, and trips to Oxford and Paris. David enchants Jenny’s parents even more successfully than he enchants her, making those weekend trips possible. And even when Jenny begins to see through the cracks in David’s facade she can’t bear the thought of losing the exotic, adult world that comes with being his girlfriend.
Peter Sarsgaard is always an interesting actor, able to slip between charming and oily almost imperceptibly. Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike are excellent, too, as his best friends. Cooper, as David’s business partner, Danny, seems to have his eyes always narrowed, as if he’s completely wise to what’s happening. Pike, as Danny’s girlfriend, Helen, is amoral but lovable as a woman who is glamorous and very sharp and self-aware despite being, as the movie says, “thick”.
Director Lone Scherfig and writer Nick Hornby made An Education so light and sunny, such a jazzy and stylish period picture, that it’s hard not to see it as a soft-sell for statutory rape. I read some excerpts from Lynn Barber’s memoir, on which the movie is based, and it only reinforced my reservations about the film’s message. It does deal with the painful revelations that end David and Jenny’s relationship, and with some of the consequences (Jenny’s plans to attend Oxford are almost completely derailed), but barely touches on the long term negatives of the “education” David gave Jenny. In her memoir Barber laments how much more cynical and wary she became as a result of David’s seduction and deception. “I was damaged by my education,” she writes. I wish the movie had made that clear.
Bonus Pick: Household Saints (1993)
Director: Nancy Savoca
I was a fervently religious little girl; so much so that I was envious of Catholic girls because they had the option of becoming nuns. Maybe that’s part of the reason I reacted so strongly to Household Saints, a movie about a young Catholic, Teresa (Lili Taylor), whose zeal for sainthood confounds her modern, Americanized Italian family. Teresa’s parents and boyfriend don’t know where the line is between devotion and madness – but they’re pretty sure that Teresa has crossed it. Savoca leaves plenty of room in the film for magic and mystery, though. This is a singular little comedy with rich performances from not only Taylor, but Vincent D’Onofrio, Michael Imperioli, and the wonderful, wonderful Tracey Ullman.