About a girl

Thom Jenkins 5 November 2009

Thom Jenkins praises a film that overcomes its seemingly trite premise

An Education – 1hr 35mins, 12A (4/5)

Virgin school girl meets older man, loses said virginity and kind of regrets it when things go bad. It’s a girl’s first love. It’s the frittered potential of youth. It’s coming of age. It’s a well-trodden premise that at no point seems trite. It is an education in film making.

An Education is set in a time before the world ate itself; 1961 to be precise. We see naive palates express delight in flavours untested, and new too-high heels tread streets of capitals previously accessible only through literature. It’s a world where you can go there, do that and come back with more than a stupid t-shirt.

This alluring backdrop contributes significantly to the film’s charm but, importantly, is not depended on as anything more. The plot characters and dialogue all stand up and stand out in their own right.

In fact, all of the performances are superb; from Jenny’s boy (that will only ever be a) friend Graham (Matthew Beard) and the schoolgirl reading awkwardly in English class (Bryony Wadsworth) to older-man David (Peter Sarsgaard), and Jenny (Carey Mulligan) herself.

Mulligan plays an entirely believably sixteen – quite an accomplishment for a twenty-four year old. Her smile is a pleasure that can be enjoyed without fear of satiation and her voice delivers every line exquisitely. Yes, I’m in love, which is bad news for me because so is everyone else.

Peter Sarsgaard plays the predatory male with an economy that demonstrates he is indeed a fine talent. His character is an older man, who we find to be more akin to a boy in a sweet shop. An expert in fun, through his patient simmering seduction, he seeks to pull Jenny inside the shop with him, regardless of the consequences.

Jenny, for her part, never stops to ask why a successful, thirty-something man would be interested in a schoolgirl. Bright and mature though she is, and in common with most teenagers, Jenny is neither as bright nor as mature as she thinks. Screenwriters take note: these are three-dimensional characters.

This is not, however, a perfect film. The plot progression sometimes falls just short of convincing. Sure, you could remind me that the story is based on true events, but I would be forced to smugly remind you that verisimilitude depends exclusively on the appearance of truth rather than what happens to be true. Luckily these moments of hiding behind Lynn Barber’s memoirs for plausibility are few and brief, doing little to undermine what is otherwise a robust script. Nick Hornby demonstrates that he can write about girls and boys, women and men with equal sympathy and, ultimately, success.

Refreshingly the film steers clear of moral judgements and, no, this isn’t a form of moral commentary in itself, nor is it an evasion. An Education simply does not seek to overtly educate viewers morally, in this way it succeeds in being so much more than just another cautionary tale. It captures all the beautiful complexity of youth and inexperience, along with the metamorphosis of these things to something even less readily defined. For example, Jenny’s realisation that poetry and music can lie (about sex no less) is a poignant moment delivered with elegance and humour, rather than a take-home-message sledgehammer.

The entire film is told from Jenny’s viewpoint; however, it is not until the end that a what-Jenny-did-next VO sees her take full control of the narrative. This cheesy device could be excused as symbolic: Jenny has traded her innocence to become chief arbiter of her own destiny. But this film needs no excuses and can afford to openly admit its indulgences.

The ending is indeed the weakest point, falling victim to the rest of the film’s success. The heady haze of Jenny’s first love is so engrossing that to be pulled sharply upward for a concluding breath of air leaves one with the cinematic equivalent of the bends. However, with performances to die for, a nauseatingly neat, turned-out-nice-again ending is a small price to pay.

An Education is now showing at the Arts Picturehouse

Thom Jenkins