Sunday, November 17, 2013

An Education

2009. 100 min. PG-13 – sexual situations, no nudity, very little language.
IMDB says... A coming-of-age story about a teenage girl in 1960s suburban London, and how her life changes with the arrival of a playboy nearly twice her age.

The 73rd Virgin says... Some mild spoilers below.

Great acting in service of a coming-of-age story that chickens out at the end.

Carey Mulligan is engaging and precise in her brilliant depiction of a whip-smart and precocious 20 year-old. Unfortunately her character – Jenny - is supposed to be 16. It is no secret that 16 year-olds can be lured into relationships with older men, and it is even believable that her striving parents would allow such a relationship to occur if they thought it would get their daughter ahead, but Mulligan’s dialog is so savvy, so mature, so devoid of stumbling innocence that my eyes just kept rolling. She’s not a 16 year-old imitating maturity – she’s just a flat out mature virgin with a school girl haircut and no makeup.

What you most need to know about the older man, David Goldman, is that he’s played by American Peter Saarsgard (with a pretty good accent). There can’t be many actors who could play a part so brazenly hazardous but still seem so believably sweet, soft-spoken, thoughtful, etc., with no hint or shadowing of menace. Director Lone Sherfig probably deserves credit for this as well. David uses his Jewishness as a way to disarm any early sufferers of WASP-guilt who might be suspicious that his motives are less than noble. Otherwise, the script avoids any short-hand Jew clichés.

Even more great acting comes from a small slice of BBC royalty in Emma Thompson’s cameo as Jenny’s school mistress, elegant Olivia Williams frumped up as a spinster teacher, Dominic Cooper as David’s more matter-of-fact sidekick, and especially Rosamund Pike as his girlfriend. Watch the interaction of the four main characters and how perfectly Pike’s remarkably expressive eyes, and the direction and editing, show her character’s insecurity in the presence of this schooled and worldly girl.

David’s weaknesses as a man are only revealed slowly. In this fine scene we get our first glimmer of his insecurities as his buddy puts very mild moves on Jenny, featuring the undervalued eternal hep-cat Mel Torme on the soundtrack.

In the end Jenny’s attraction to David is more about her boredom and exasperation with middle-class suburban England, and her parents, than it is about a deep if immature love.

...well that’s how life is in most socialist utopias chicky. The criminals are the only bold and interesting people left.

As her disappointments mount, she is rather more upset about the loss of life opportunities than the wreckage of her first love.

I’m glad to find one story of teenaged missteps that doesn’t involve instant pregnancy. Even so, the price of Jenny’s disregard for her teachers, her gender, and her capacity for extraordinary achievement is only briefly paid – and then almost magically wiped away while resorting to that hoariest of script clichés – the musical montage.

At the closing voiceover (yep) she offers that she goes back to dating “boys…and they really were boys”. The odd moral calculus of the movie is that a thirtyish small time crook and operator who: is attracted to teen-aged girls; is so insecure that he offers marriage at the first threat; has premature ejaculation issues; uses baby talk, is still the worldly “man”, while the polite, nervous, anxiously loving young college men are the “boys”. Only modern-day feminism could squeeze that baby out.

See it for the acting and the music but be prepared for a letdown.

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