Note: The following review could contain some spoilers. While I personally feel there is nothing that hasn't been stated in most other reviews, a couple of people have complained, so I felt it worth mentioning. Please keep in mind this is a rare exception and I try to keep all of my reviews spoiler-free.  

An Education is a film that is wholly worth seeing for its terrific performances and some moments of genuine drama, but when looked at as a whole, it isn't much more than a competent entry into the very crowded coming-of-age genre. Directed by Lone Scherfig and adapted by Nick Hornby from a memoir by Lynn Barber, this is a film that is only willing to sacrifice a safe amount of its protagonist's well-being, and that's where its main faults lie.  While I was watching this film, I didn't get the sense that it wanted to be something more than a slightly above average film, and the completely conventional ending confirmed my suspicions.

So much has been said about Carey Mulligan's lead performance as Jenny, and she is riveting. However, it is tough for me to say she is the main reason to see this film because the entire ensemble is at the top of their game. Mulligan's Jenny is a teenage student whose life revolves around her studies and her cello thanks to her strict, but caring -- and remarkably naive -- parents played by Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour. She is well on her way to Oxford and a serious relationship is one of the furthest things from her mind. 

Then, one rainy day, she meets the dashing and confident David, played with remarkable bravura by Peter Sarsgaard. Jenny is taken with him immediately, but as David is able to slowly but surely woo her parents into his corner, their relationship begins to take them to places like Oxford and France. Of course, they do not go alone, but rather with another couple, Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike). We suspect there might be something wrong with their relationship, but the script is only willing to answer so many questions in this film.

David and Jenny's relationship stays relatively chaste until she decides to lose her virginity to David on her 17th birthday. These somewhat sexual scenes (the film is rated PG-13) are expertly filmed by Lone Scherfig and they feel genuine and realistic rather than awkward and corny. This is also what makes Sarsgaard's character so interesting because we can tell he's not entirely truthful, but he also seems like he really cares about this young woman. 

In my opinion, Sarsgaard's David is the most interesting character in the film. Mulligan turns in a great performance, but her character is rather predictable, and our feelings towards her stay pretty much the same throughout the film. On the other hand, David becomes an increasingly fascinating study with each new thing we learn about him, and Sarsgaard's performance is certainly Oscar nomination quality. He is charming and funny, slimy and off-putting, and he pulls it all off in such a subtle manner. He is terrific. 

My main problems with this film are the storyline and the ending. To me, the film really didn't seem to move along in a very coherent way. One minute, Jenny and David are fighting about where he gets his money from, and the next they are discussing when they are going to make love for the first time. In one scene, Jenny's teacher Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams) -- who I really would have liked to see more of -- is trying to convince her about ending the relationship, and before we know it Jenny is arguing with the Headmistress (Emma Thompson) about the worthiness of a degree. The film tries to fit so many things into its short running time that it eventually comes up short in each area and makes its primary purpose seem very unclear.

I was rather pleased with the way Jenny and David's relationship came to an end; that is not the ending I am disappointed with. Rather, it is the last ten minutes that really confirmed the film's conventionality for me. The films title seemed cheap to me because by the end of the film, I didn't really feel that Jenny made her new decisions based on some kind of newfound knowledge she gained about life, but rather out of pure desperation. She relies on the help of Miss Stubbs to secure her future and Hornby's script attributes a thirty second voice-over at the end to somehow confirm for us that Jenny is happy and content with her life. 

In the end, this is a film that is worth seeing because of Mulligan and Sarsgaard. They are both much better than the unfocused script. There are so many subplots in this film that we learn nothing of, but we sense that the filmmakers expect us to learn something by learning nothing. It's still a solid film, I just don't think it's quite the awards darling most people are making it out to be.


Rae Kasey said...

Have you seen Julie & Julia yet? I'm anxious to hear your take on the Streep vs. Mulligan discussion.

An Education is STILL not in my area. Maddening.

Candice Frederick said...

hmmmm...may be interesting. thanks for the review. i may check this out.

Danny King said...

@ Rae: I'm actually very disappointed at this point because never did see Julie & Julia. I'll watch it the minute it comes out on DVD because I am really looking forward to comparing the two performances.

@ Candice: I would definitely recommend it, I just think it has been a little bit overrated at this point.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Ummm. So thanks for the spoilers :)

I'd like to hear what you think about J&J. I didn't review...maybe some day I will but then I don't really wanted to be ostracized from the blogosphere for not loving Julia Child...or do I...?

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Ummm. So thanks for the spoilers :)

And I'd like to hear what you eventually think of J&J. Never reviewed it formally [B- bordering on C+]. But I don't want to become a pariah on the blogosphere for hating Julia Child.

Danny King said...

@ Andrew: I tried to be very subtle about what I gave away. I don't think I gave away any more than most critics did, and I generally try to keep my reviews as spoiler-free as possible. It's a little tougher with this film because the ending was one of my main criticisms.

I don't think Julie & Julia was acclaimed by any stretch of the imagination outside of Streep's performance, so I wouldn't say your average feelings about the film would cause a stir.

Rae Kasey said...

Ugh I thought most of Julie & Julia was unbearable. The only time I was even marginally entertained was when Meryl was on screen. She does give a wonderful performance, but it wasn't emotionally resonant. For me, at least.

I think Streep is great, but I'm of the opinion that she has to top Sophie's Choice to win another Oscar. At this point no role really seems to challenge her, and I think that hurts her chances.

Danny King said...

@ Rae: I agree with you in terms of Streep's performances being so effortless. She was great in Doubt, but it seemed like she could do that role in her sleep. It's almost as if she can pick one role every year and she's guaranteed to get nominated for it.

I've also heard great things about Stanley Tucci in Julie & Julia. Any thoughts on his performance?

Rae Kasey said...

I was not blown away by Streep last year. Quite frankly I thought she was outdone by the rest of the cast.

And yes, Stanley Tucci was wonderful in Julie & Julia. Just fantastic. If his performance is strong in The Lovely Bones he'll have no problem getting in with two great roles fresh on voters' minds.

Danny King said...

@ Rae: His role in The Lovely Bones looks like it has a lot of promise to it, but the film is such a unique effort that it could be hit or miss.

I do agree that Streep wasn't the best of the cast in Doubt. I thought Philip Seymour Hoffman owned the scenes they were in together, but it was still great to watch.

Midgard Dragon said...

How does this discussion get to Julia and Julia. Very aggravating. Also, the whole movie was practically spoiled in this review. Very aggravating.

Danny King said...

@ Midgard: Mulligan and Streep are arguably the two front runners for Best Actress at this point, so that's where the discussion started.

Also, can you please tell me how the whole movie was spoiled in the review? This is the first review I've written where someone has complained about spoilers and I don't think I said more than most people did in their reviews of the film.

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