You know you’ve learnt something when you’re changed by what you’ve learnt. If you’re still you, plus a memorized inventory: no dice. That’s why most of most what we learn in school is only exam fodder. There’s a big difference between knowledge that helps you get on in life and knowledge that helps you live. The new British movie, An Education, is about a valuable lesson taught to a 16-year-old by her first whopping great mistake. She is Oxford-bound, a straight-A student, so she could easily have stuck to her books and missed her opportunity. Thankfully, she studies her mistake – appreciates it – and allows experience to enhance her mind.
England, in the early 60s, was still a Jane Austen world for girls. You either aspired to one of the spinster professions (teaching, secretary) or you aspired to marriage. A girl like Jenny (the movie’s heroine) might, ostensibly, be studying to get into Oxford, but in reality – i.e. in her parent’s view – she’s studying to make it easier to find an educated husband. Jenny’s parents are hardly tyrants, but they feel they know what’s best for their daughter. Then one day she brings home a seemingly nice, seemingly educated older man, and says she loves him. Today, we’d call him all sorts of names. In England, in the early 60s, he’s seemingly a good prospect.
Carey Mulligan plays Jenny as the sort of girl who Audrey Hepburn would have essayed. She has wry eyebrows and an impish smile. She’s capable of looking sweet and looking serious without either look jarring. And she can make you believe an older man isn’t a pervert just by looking back at him – sweetly serious, the way Audrey used to – as if to say, “I’ll be good enough for us both”. Scenes that could potentially be very awkward to watch – Jenny dating a 34-year-old! – are always (as intended) romantic because Mulligan doesn’t act foolish. She isn’t playing a girl who gets seduced. She’s playing a girl who falls in love. In another movie – an Audrey Hepburn movie – there’d be no problem with her choice. Carey Mulligan’s triumph is to portray Audrey Hepburn struggling with reality.
Peter Sarsgaard plays Jenny’s seducer like a man falling in love. He’s equally the reason why the movie works because he isn’t all the ugly things he could have been. You don’t feel that he’s controlling Jenny or that he’s leering at her. You don’t feel that her intelligence is a threat to him, or that he’s indifferent to her needs. He’s simply a man doing the wrong thing because he’s in love with a 16-year-old. Sarsgaard, who has a knack for morally lapsed characters, is comfortable in his role because he doesn’t play Jenny’s boyfriend as a liar. He tells her the truth about his feelings. The rest seems irrelevant. But for niggling reality, he’d be her ideal husband.
There’s a lot of comedy in An Education, as there should be in any movie about youth. Emma Thompson probably gets the most laughs as Jenny’s anti-Semitic (though not entirely stupid) headmistress, who responds to news that Jenny’s boyfriend is Jewish with the heartfelt plea: “You are aware, I take it, that the Jews killed our Lord.” Thompson, dressed like Margaret Thatcher, brings such a sense of British-ness to her performance that you wonder she doesn’t wrap herself in a Union Jack. Her meetings with Jenny form a kind of dialogue between pre and post-60s Britain, but Thompson ensures we don’t see the Age of Austerity as merely dim.
Learning that you’re a fool is life’s best lesson. We’re insufferable without humility. Success might breed success, but it’s murder on the ego. What Jenny learns from choosing the wrong man is exactly what will help her (with hindsight) choose the right one. An Education lets you know from the title that this isn’t a tragedy. It’s a coming-of-age story; a “how I came to be…” Usually, these stories are so brittle with cliché that they’re choked from telling you anything sincere. But An Education resists cliché and caricature the way its heroine resists conformity. It tells you – right from the moment Carey Mulligan flares on screen – that the lesson will not be rote.