Browse Josh's Portfolio and the Comic, Reviews or Blog archive.

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews An Education (2009)

September 27th, 2010
, ,

I saw a lot of movies in 2009, but one of the films that I missed was An Education.  I’ve been meaning to remedy that for a while, ever since the film was released on DVD, and I finally had a chance to watch it earlier this month.  It’s a great film, which I thoroughly enjoyed right up until the final 3-4 minutes.  (I’ll get to that in a minute.)

Carey Mulligan plays Jenny, a sixteen year-old girl who lives with her parents outside of London in the 1960’s.  She is studying hard at an all-girls school in the hopes of being accepted to Oxford the following year.  One rainy day, while walking home from school, she meets David Goldman (Peter Sarsgaard), a charming, wealthy man who is a great deal older than she.  Jenny is impressed by his lifestyle, and his interest in and knowledge of art and music.  David’s charm seduces Jenny’s parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) almost as much as it does Jenny — her mother and father are so excited at the prospect of their daughter marrying such a well-off, intelligent and cultured fellow that they allow themselves to be blinded to the potential downsides of the relationship.

An Education is a fairly small-scale, intimate character study (that’s a compliment, not a criticism), and as such it is carried on the strength of its ensemble cast.  (Though a strong script from the great Nick Hornby helps too!)  That the actors assembled are SO strong is probably why the film was met with such acclaim upon its release last year.  Carey Mulligan knocks it out of the park in her first major leading role.  She brings a fierce intelligence as well as a believable vulnerability to the role of Jenny, a young woman on the verge of a larger education about life than she was expecting.  Peter Sarsgaard is equally compelling as David.  Anyone who’s ever seen a movie before can probably surmise that there’s more to this seemingly charming man than meets the eye, but Mr. Sarsgaard’s compelling performance makes one understand why Jenny (and her parents) can fall for him.

Speaking of Jenny’s parents, Alfred Molina is stupendous as her father.  As with all the actors in the ensemble, he avoids cliche or over-simplification in his performance.  He’s a comic stick-in-the-mud at many points in the film, particularly in the early-going (complaining about listening to Jenny’s practicing her cello, or protesting that he doesn’t want to drive so far to hear a concert), but he also clearly cares for his daughter and is concerned for her well-being.  As his wife, Cara Seymour has the far-less showy role, but she also brings great strength (and some good humor) to the performance.

Those are the four main roles, but I should also comment that I really enjoyed Dominic Cooper as David’s shady pal Danny, and I absolutely adored Rosamund Pike as Danny’s girlfriend Helen.  I really only knew Ms. Pike from Die Another Day (she was, frankly, the only good thing about that mediocre Bond film), and didn’t recognize her as Helen until the end credits.  She’s wonderful — comically dim, and yet not just a simple punchline.  She’s kind to Jenny when she has no reason to be, and, in a few important moments, demonstrates a clear awareness of the situation she has chosen to accept as normal.  It was also great to see Olivia Williams (Adelle DeWitt from Dollhouse) in the key role of Jenny’s teacher Miss Stubbs.  I wish she’d had more to do in the film.

I was really enjoying this emotionally complex, nuanced film right up until the last couple of minutes.  It’s hard to avoid SPOILERS from here, gang, so beware.

I have two major problems with the ending. First of all, while I wasn’t expecting the film to end in total tragedy for all involved, the surprisingly happy ending seemed WAY too easy to me.  After everything goes wrong and Jenny has made all the wrong choices, suddenly, magically, in two seconds everything is made OK again and she’s able to get into Oxford after all, yay, smiles all around.  Wait, what?  I was totally thrown by the sudden about face, and to me it seemed a cheat after all that had come before.  Second, I was totally befuddled as to HOW that magical happy ending was attained. Jenny asks Miss Stubbs for help, Miss Stubbs replies that she’s been hoping Jenny would ask her for that, then there’s a brief montage of Jenny studying and seasons passing, and suddenly she’s getting accepted to Oxford.  Wait, WHAT???  How exactly did that happen?  Did Miss Stubbs get Jenny reinstated to her school?  Did she tutor her on her own?  How was Jenny able to take the exams?  I am totally confused as to what happened.  That’s a pretty major plot-point for the film to be so vague about.  This seems like an abrupt reversal of the naturalistic tone of the rest of the film.  It doesn’t RUIN the film for me, but I must say it did diminish it somewhat in my eyes.  It’s disappointing to me that, after such a great first 95% of the movie, they couldn’t stick the landing.

I wish I could recommend An Education more unabashedly, and it certainly is a well-crafted, entertaining film.  But that ending keeps it from being a home run, at least in my eyes.

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someone