Sunday, December 13, 2009

Some of My Problems With 'An Education'

Warning: The following article does mention several SPOILERS of the film. It contains thorough discussion of the ending and critical plot points, so if you have not seen the film, read at your own discretion.

Throughout the year and up until I saw it back in October, Lone Scherfig's An Education was one of my most anticipated films of the year. Peter Sarsgaard is one of the most underrated actors today, and I was really looking forward to him getting a big role alongside the relative newcomer Carey Mulligan. On top of the noteworthy cast, the film's terrific trailer did nothing but add to my anticipation.

After seeing it, I had mixed feelings about the film, particularly the ending, but I was willing to forgive a lot of the faults because of the terrific performances from both Mulligan and Sarsgaard (who both deserve Oscar nominations). However, my problems with the ending and the execution of the film's themes have ceased to go away, and I think it's about time that I mention them. 

First off, as you can tell from the title, this film is supposed to be about a woman named Jenny (Mulligan) who receives "an education." However, this isn't an ordinary education that she receives from her science teacher, but she is supposed to learn her life lessons at the hands of her lover, David (Sarsgaard). 

When she falls in love with David, he eventually proposes to her in a terrific scene, and Jenny subsequently quits school. I had problem with the latter part because throughout the film her parents, particularly her father, are constantly pushing her into doing difficult things to get into Oxford. More than anything else, they want to see their Jenny get accepted into Oxford, and they make that very clear. 

But when Jenny confronts them after David's proposal, all of the sudden there is no meaning for school. Her father supports, and even encourages her decision to leave school for the seemingly successful David. These once strict, demanding, and educated parents have fallen head over heels for David just as much as Jenny has. 

Well, when Jenny realizes that David does in fact have a wife on the side, you can imagine how much her life falls apart. She abandoned her educational ambitions for this man, and shortly after she learns that he has gone home to his wife after every time he sees her. I actually felt that this revelation worked quite well within the context of the film, but my main problems were with what happened afterwards.

First off, this only proves how bad Jenny's parents were. What kind of guardians convince their Oxford-bound daughter to quit school for a man they know virtually nothing about? This seems particularly pathetic after they have both spent their entire lives preparing Jenny for getting into Oxford. Not only do they nearly throw Jenny's life away, but they almost destroy all of the hard work they have done to help Jenny succeed in the academic world.

One of the film's main dilemmas seems to be finding the point of education. In a great scene, Jenny confronts the headmistress and asks her point blank why she should stay in school when she can have the time of her life being married to David. It is an excellent question, and the headmistress can't even muster up anything near a response.

That is an excellent question to base a film around, but when the movie tries to answer that question, it fails badly. After she leaves David, Jenny goes back to the headmistress and asks for a spot back at the school. In this scene, Jenny says that she realizes she now needs a degree, but she never says why, and that is something that really bothered me. The fact that she never explains why she needs a degree proved to me that she wasn't going back to school because she has learned the importance of it, but rather because she was desperate. Can you imagine how you would feel if you quit school for a relationship, and it seemingly ended a week or two after? It's a brutal predicament, and although I feel sorry for Jenny, I wasn't convinced that she truly learned anything. If David turned out to indeed be the man Jenny thought he was, then she would be part of a luxurious, happy marriage, and there would be, just like she thought, no reason to get an academic degree.

Regardless of her speech, the headmistress ends up denying Jenny a spot back in the school, so she has to go looking elsewhere. Jenny eventually relies on the help of a mentor figure to help her with her studies and get her into Oxford. Of course, this portion of the film takes about two minutes, and the ending relies on a thirty second voice over from Jenny to assure the audience that she is happy at Oxford and that she has indeed become a smarter woman.

With that ending, the film compromises itself to an incredible extent. I have become increasingly disappointed with the way this film turned out because there was potential for something very powerful here. I still think the performances were great, but how can this film expect to say anything important, meaningful, or powerful about education when it shows the main character going from a truant teenager to a successful Oxford student in less than sixty seconds?


Julian Stark said...

Just an opinion but...

I have to disagree about your analysis of the parents. Sure: they were HORRIBLE PARENTS!!! But their motives were good. They had wanted Jenny to go to Oxford because they thought that was the one way she could be "successful".

Then, when David comes along, he sweeps Jenny off her feet... as well as her parents. His proposal means that she won't have to worry about security anymore, which is why the parents are fine with the whole thing... that, as well as their stupidity

Granted, this is just an opinion. Well-written post. I was very close to agreeing with you on the topic just from reading it

Danny King said...

@ Julian Stark: Hey Julian, thanks for the detailed comment. I definitely agree that they had Jenny's best intentions at heart, but the fact that they truly believed she could've bee successful with David (and without school) only reinforces my problem that the film never convinced me of the importance of a degree.

joe burns said...

I thought that the ending had a lot of problems. And I really don't get all the fuss about Mulligan. Was she really that great?

Danny King said...

@ joe burns: I agree with your comments about the film's ending. As far as Mulligan goes, I thought she did a great job. I don't think it's a groundbreaking performance or anything like that, but I'd say the Oscar attention is well-deserved. Personally, I think Sarsgaard had a much tougher and more complex portrayal.

Julian Stark said...

I know this is where I'm getting on shaky ground, but I think that Dominic Cooper gave the best performance as far as the males go.

Alfred Molina was fantastic, but for me, his character was too much like the signature comic relief character on a sitcom that is awful save for such a character. I don't really understand Sarsgaard's praise, though. British accent mastery aside, I don't really think he did too much with the character.

I really loved Mulligan. Shockingly so. I wasn't expecting her to be that good, and now I'm half-happy for her frontrunner status (sad because Gabby probably won't have another shot at the gold)

Danny King said...

@ Julian Stark: Mulligan and Sidibe are at the top of my list as well, but Sidibe gave what is still far and away my favorite female lead performance of the year.

Dominic Cooper was solid, but I wish his character and his relationship's problems were developed a little bit more. And I agree on Alfred Molina; not sure what qualifies that as an Oscar-quality performance.

joe burns said...

I agree with you about Sidibe. I didn't really care for Molina for pretty much the reasons that Julian said.

Brad B said...

The one thing you never mention is the year the film is set. This is the '60s, which explains a lot about the parents and their actions. On top of that you have to answer the question "Why does Jenny's dad want her to go to Oxford?" It's more of a safety line than anything else, which helps explain his excitement over Jenny finding a man that can support her. He's also proven to be frugal, no money spent on Oxford if she gets married.

As for some of your complaints such as; "The fact that she never explains why she needs a degree proved to me that she wasn't going back to school because she has learned the importance of it, but rather because she was desperate." and "[It] shows the main character going from a truant teenager to a successful Oxford student in less than sixty seconds." I think you may be looking for the film to fill-in a lot of blanks that don't really need filling. We already know Jenny is a smart girl so it should come as no surprise she was able to put two and two together. The one thing that goes along with that is even smart people make dumb decisions sometimes. Jenny's youth, her father's actions and the year the film is set all play into her decision making.

Also, @Julian Stark said Alfred Molina's character was more of a "comic relief character," which goes to the film's subject and how silly his actions seem. It's a comment on the times as much as it is a story about Jenny, and it's light-hearted on top of all that.

This leads into your final statement when you ask, "How can this film expect to say anything important, meaningful, or powerful about education?" I could reply by asking, "Who says it was trying to do any of those things?"

Of course, this is just my take on things... Obviously I really liked this one.

Danny King said...

@ Brad B: Brad, thanks so much for stopping by, I really appreciate the comment. I knew you were a big supporter of this film when I gave you the link, so your insight and defense of the film is something I really wanted to hear.

The setting is an important part of the film, definitely worth mentioning. I obviously do not have much knowledge of the time period, but I can accept and agree with the fact that the film's story and characters are a product of their time period, and I should maybe ease up my criticism in that aspect.

When you mention that I was "looking for the film to fill-in a lot of blanks that don't really need filling," that is something I can certainly back up because one of the film's main problems in my eyes was that it tried to do too much. I felt that the film tried to bring up so much that it was impossible to answer -- or even address in some cases -- each conflict that was brought up, and ended up leaving a lot of blanks unfilled.

And your final question about "Who says it was trying to do any of those things?" really gets at the root of my issue with the film. Based on the reviews and buzz, this film looks like a sure bet for a Best Picture nomination, and when a film gets reception like that, I tend to expect a film with some true thematic or emotional depth. With An Education, I saw a film that was, among many other things, trying to show the importance of education, and I thought it failed in that regard.

There are certainly other themes present here, but when I look at one of the film's signature scenes when Emma Thompson's character (the headmistress) is unable to explain to Jenny why she should get a degree, a certain part of me expects to get a definitive answer down the line.

I guess you could say that my issues with this film stem from the fact that it didn't live up to the buzz for me. I can look at this film as a light-hearted dramedy and be satisfied with it, but as a strong Best Picture contender, I can't help but express my complaints.

Brad B said...

@Danny King: First off, as to your need for certain blanks to be filled that's all a matter of opinion and I can see where you're coming from and we should probably just agree to disagree. However, I think there is something to be said about your "root issue" with the film.

You wrote: "Based on the reviews and buzz, this film looks like a sure bet for a Best Picture nomination, and when a film gets reception like that, I tend to expect a film with some true thematic or emotional depth."

I don't think this is, through no fault of your own, the right way to go into a film because you are putting a spin on a film before you've even had a chance to evaluate it. You're walking into this film thinking, "People are saying this is a Best Picture contender which means it must have X, Y and Z." You can't help having this opinion because buzz has encouraged this evaluation, but it still means an added weight has been placed on the film's shoulders before you even saw a single frame.

If I'm misinterpreting you here I'm sorry, but it seemed like that's what you were saying, especially when you say "it didn't live up to the buzz" for you. This is actually one of the reasons I do my best to avoid watching trailers if and whenever possible.

giggles said...

Fellow movie lover here, of the distaff side....

I enjoyed this movie very much. As I watched it, I imagined sharing it with my now 12 year-old daughter, as a kind of cautionary tale...when she's a bit older.

Her father wanted her to go to Oxford...not for her education, but for her to find a most suitable husband (in father's mind....) But she had to study hard just to get in.... Typical philosophy of the times...

Her education was figuring out that she indeed could not (did not want to NEED to) depend on a man for her survival, or success or future..... (For fun? Absolutely!)

Food for thought....

Anonymous said...

Ok there were many too many detailed comments for me to check if this was already said, but..

Earlier in the film when Alfred Molina goes on the rant about money, he makes some comment about how she might just meet some lawyer at Oxford and all of the money would be a waste anyway. So I wan't surprised later on when they just marry her off to David and give up their Oxford hopes. The idea of her marrying some guy and being taken care of seemed just as appealing to him, if not more, as her going to Oxford and being able to depend on herself.

If I misinterpreted that scene or just reported it incorrectly, feel free to corret me.

Danny King said...

@ Brad B: I agree with you in terms of my philosophy going into the film. I usually don't try to put a spin on a film before I've seen it, but as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, An Education was a highly-anticipated film for me, and it's quite possible that had an effect on my experience.

You certainly did not misinterpret and I know how cautious you are about trailers, so perhaps I will try my best in the future to follow suit.

@ giggles: I can accept the fact that some of my problems were because of the time period, so your argument does have some weight. I just struggle to see the need for her to go to Oxford to find a man when she can just as easily find a successful man roaming about in her hometown.

In terms of your take on "her education," I can see where you are coming from, but I didn't interpret Jenny as reliant on David, but rather simply enchanted by him and the lifestyle he lead. I don't think she ever doubted her own individual abilities to support herself and her future, I just felt that she saw an attractive shortcut in David.

@ Emily: I believe Brad B previously mentioned the "frugal" nature of the father, so your comment is a correct interpretation. As I said to giggles, I'm finding it difficult to understand why Oxford is the only place her parents want her to go to find a husband. It could perhaps have a lot to do with the time period and the successful image of Oxford, but she could've easily found a successful man anywhere else.

Daniel Getahun said...

Interesting discussion, and you get at a little of what prevented me from enjoying this more (particularly the rushed ending).

More than the details of her particular life, though, I'd have liked to learn more about England during this period in general. I understand that her story was meant to represent the culture at the time, but it just seemed like navel-gazing to me, and you're right, with more exploration of her future or her parents or the world around here, I think it would have made for a more powerful, universal story. As it is I just saw it as a story about some girl, well-acted but ultimately not that affecting for me.

Danny King said...

@ Daniel: Similar feelings here. A lot of the support for the film in this discussion was regarding the time period, and although I can respect that to an extent, the fact that I didn't know much about the time period and that the film didn't go to great lengths to bring us into that time period certainly made for less-than-powerful experience.

Your last sentence sums up my opinion very well: "I just saw it as a story about some girl, well-acted but ultimately not that affecting for me."

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