Though the culmination of the titular éducation sentimental in An Education invariably leaves residuum of a deeply ingrained conservatism as aftertaste, Danish director Lone Scherfig and de rigueur English scenarist Nick Hornby, in full ribbed-for-her-pleasure mode (adapting the Granta-published memoir of barb’d-tongu’d journo Lynn Barber), give themselves enough ethological slack that the film never becomes explicitly reactionary (or sentimental, in point of fact), in no way hanging any of its finally-all-quite-likeable characters out to dry, or in any real way resembling a cautionary tale, despite some hard lessons hard won.
The journey is, as the film details it, well bloody worth the tears in the tea. As anyone knocked about by the school of life can tell you, a little mutual exploitation can serve its purpose so long as ones illusions don’t get in ones way. It is precisely w/ the not-so-innocent cultivation and sudden decommissioning of her illusions that bright, impetuous, sixteen-year-old Francophile, and prospective Oxfordite Jenny gets burned.
In pre-swing 1961 Victorian Twickenham, in a land before mods and rockers and Peter Pan syndrome, Jenny hooks up with Peter Sarsgaard’s David Goldman, a charming, worldly, thirtysomething Jew, w/ a knack for the short con and a tendency to botch its more involved, longer-investment brother, who effortlessly ensconces her in his world of art auctions, concerts, supper clubs, jazz, and bon vivant friends Danny and Helen. By flattering her intelligence and wantonly entitled aspirations for cultural ascension, he wisps her away to Oxford and then Paris, where she is summarily, and apparently quite briskly, deflowered on her seventeenth birthday, having had her square-peg parents smarmily won over by David’s improvisatory wiles, his having played on their fears of looking like the people they in fact are, and having implicitly promised to make all her Juliette Gréco-soundtracked dreams come Technicolor true. Sarsgaard makes the film credible by playing the truth of the arrested-adolescent conman: all flash and filigree masking the scared child within, full of thinly concealed neuroses, a terror of honesty and exposure, and some pretty considerable sexual hang-ups that manifest themselves in the bedroom in the form of uncomfortable baby-talk and an awkward attempt to bring a banana into the mix. This warts-and-all education is just as much his as Jenny’s, only sadder, he seemingly just as excitedly enraptured by this world of things made sparkling new as his jailbait Audrey Hepburn w/ her eyes alight and proneness to full-faced blushery.
It is the kind of adult sanity, which David Foster Wallace elsewhere on this Blog calls “the only unalloyed form of heroism available today,” that is the structuring absence of this too-good-to-be-true pleasure cruise drunken boat from which Jenny has the opportunity to awaken but which David is far too deep in to ever escape, his pathology and track record having serialized his protective skins of untruth and armored-in-riches childishness. Everybody is talking about young ingénue Carey Mulligan and her resplendent turn as Jenny. Enough has already been said as far as all that is concerned. She is indeed something.
The film’s sense of genuine midrange BBC tragedy, however, lives and dies by the wounded man-boys in An Education. Both Sarsgaard and Alfred Molina, as Jenny’s stuffy, befuddled chump of a well-meaning father, expose layers of defensiveness and self-deceit through which brief rays of vulnerability and genuine care cautiously pierce. The real heartbreaker, though, is Mathew Beard in a small part as Jenny’s erstwhile teen suitor, who w/ wince-inducing pubescent lack-of-any-dexterity-whatever navigates out-of-my-league desire, clumsy-waltzing around a steadfast limit he is shatteringly aware of, making him the most pathetic male figure in the film, but also the only one in possession of sufficient self-awareness to know when to make an exit.
It is finally Jenny who holds most of the real power in An Education, as is often the case in these situations (not a politically correct sentiment, granted), and having had her heart edifyingly broken before it is too late, she emerges from the film, and a con in which she was much more than a willing participant, as a potentially unstoppable force, poised to enter adulthood a second time w/ procedural savoir-faire, shed of all the mauvaise foi. The film, finally, is a breezily directed and prettily framed piece of triumphant ball-busting bluster, almost worthy of half the effusive praise it has been getting.