Sunday, December 13, 2009
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?