is one of those highly pedigreed movies from England that burnishes
the Limeys' reputation as high-brow intellectuals who sit around
in smoking jackets reading leather-bound copies of Sherlock
Holmes and hunting foxes on their estates with cannons mounted
to the roofs of their Mini Mokes. Movies like this give you
the impression the Brits are a people whose idea of politics
is having reasonable, free debate, and their porn consists of
people in evening gowns giving smoldering glances while dancing
to The Blue Danube. An Education could be a BBC
After School Very Special about the importance of getting formally
learned, with the terrifying alternative being going to jazz
concerts and art auctions and not getting into Oxford. It could
be, but it's not. Mainly because it's so fucking well done.
Well done enough to blend its more nuanced parts with a pretty
damn facile conclusion.
takes place in 1961 suburban London, pre-swinging and post-war
rebuilding, when England was still a relatively uptight and
nervous place. Carey Mulligan plays a sixteen-year-old who knows
her authors and artists and has opinions informed beyond her
years. I think we are meant to confuse her book smarts and natural
cleverness with wisdom, as she does, because later on the difference
between knowing a lot of shit and understanding the value of
that knowledge is critical. She's in an all-girl school where,
sadly, there are no sexy pillow fights. She is, though, the
one student for which her teacher wades through all the dimwits
and their stories about ponies. She will be going to Oxford.
For those of you who don't know, Oxford is the most prestigious
university in England, and getting in is a big fucking deal.
It's to other English universities the way Red Rocks Community
College is to other Colorado junior colleges. Not to brag or
anything, but I spent nearly two semesters at Red Rocks and
later sat in on a few weeks of a class called "Female Sexual
Politics" because I thought there'd be a lot of free-spirited
lesbians in it. There wasn't: just fourteen other guys with
the same idea as me. Decidedly unsexy.
fantastic Alfred Molina plays Mulligan's stodgy father who has
her on a straight line to university. No playing, no extraneous
fun, just a lot of studying and participating in activities
like youth orchestra that probably aren't fun but look good
on your university application. He is focused on her having
the security that comes with a good degree. He isn't as concerned
about her actually having the good education or appreciating
it, just the security that comes with it.
There you go, Mulligan
is too smart for school, or at least thinks she is, and too
smart for her father's restrictive plans. Along comes Peter
Saarsgard, an older man (I guess late 20s, early thirties),
with a superswank burgundy Bristol four-door and a sophisticated
style that better represents who she wants to be than who she
thinks she is. Saarsgard is so charming and sophisticated, apparently,
that neither of Mulligan's parents question it when he starts
taking her to concerts, jazz shows, art auctions and weekends
in Paris and Oxford. Well, Mulligan isn't entirely honest about
it. She's so enamored by his sophistication and the world he
opens up to her that she abets him by ditching school and lying
to her parents for him.
Saarsgard is also
a morally bankrupt con man. He isn't above pilfering from the
old or infirmed, and he makes a business of moving black people
into uptight neighborhoods to cause the residents to sell to
him cheap. Mulligan knows this is wrong, but her attraction
to feeling like a sophisticated grownup makes her complicit
in his wrongdoing.
Meanwhile, her schoolwork
suffers. The teacher who adored her loses patience. Mulligan
finds herself wondering what the point of an education is anyway,
if all it leads to is a job teaching the next generation of
girls, and not going to school means cocktail parties and dog
tracks. Hell, Saarsgard even takes her to Oxford, and it seems
like a much more fun place as a weekend getaway than as a place
Molina and Mulligan's
mother are okay with the creepy relationship because Saarsgard
has money and class. If he has those, then Molina feels his
daughter will be well taken care of and have no need for an
Oxford education. But, in its most after-school-special-moment,
An Education reveals Saarsgard is not what he seems.
The revelation is not that he's really a multi-millionaire philanthropist.
He's worse than he appears. I expected that reveal since the
beginning of the movie, as I would think most audiences would.
That it's no surprise blunts the sympathy I felt for Mulligan.
Yet, the point of
An Education is not to surprise us, but to show that
Mulligan could be shocked by something that seems so inevitable.
While she may be book smart, have good taste and appreciate
fine art, she is still a child. She is naive and falls in love
too easily. One moment she is scolding her teachers and headmistress,
but the next she's getting the most important education of all.
It is the difference between being wise and simply thinking
you are. Only experience teaches the difference, and that's
what Mulligan learns.
Saarsgard and Mulligan
are both very good in An Education. He is slippery and
charming, not handsome, but worldly and knowledgeable, even
when most of what he pretends to know is bullshit. Like a good
con man, he's a master at putting his targets at ease. Mulligan
is fantastic. She looks sixteen-trying-to-be-25, and underneath
it she has the vulnerability of the teenager. She may make a
convincing speech now and then, but it's really just a better
quality of adolescent petulance.
The movie only loses
its steam in a few places. First is that Saarsgard so easily
seduces a sixteen-year-old without much resistance from anyone.
I don't know 1961, but nowadays people wouldn't trust a man
who wants to pop teen cherries, no matter his charm. Second
is the movie's denouement, which ties up everything a little
too neatly so that nothing is lost in the end. Mulligan gets
her education, but I think it probably should have cost a bit
more. Four Fingers for An Education. It's a pretty
fucking terrific movie.
to tell Filthy Something?