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An Education (Lone Scherfig, 2009)


     An Education, Lone Scherfigís May-December soap opera, attempts to impress audiences with its worldliness, but it comes off instead as an awkward, unformed teen fantasy run amok. Telling the story of an Oxford-bound girl who finds herself questioning the meaning behind her studies when she meets a worldly older man, the movie seems designed to offer up its predigested wisdom to audiences. In trying to dazzle presumably mature audiences with what seems to be its sixteen year old protagonistís idea of sophistication, though, it panders to us. The result is an unconvincing narrative filled with the sort of stock characters that only someone who has done most of her living in books could imagine.


     Thereís so much deck stacking in Hornbyís screenplay that itís difficult to know where to begin complaining. Everyone is painted as a buffoon so Jenny (Carey Mulligan), the sixteen year old protagonist, can appear more mature. When sheís courted by an older man itís entirely understandable that she should be taken in by his dubious charms, but the film half-expects the audience to be carried away in her fantasy as well. Since the lie of her new life is never made convincing, though, the spell of romance never formulates. Just as strangely, though, thereís also no particularly productive exploration of her self-deluding nature. The result is one of the emptiest movies ever to purportedly be about growing wiser.


     Mulligan is the closest thing An Education has to a saving grace. She gives the only performance that is layered and emotionally compelling in the movie. To say that she elevates or transforms this weak material would be overkill, though. Sheís merely able to momentarily distract us from the absurdities and inconsistencies inherent in the other characters. Alfred Molina, who plays her alternatively overprotective and chauvinistic father, is given a character thatís especially ill-conceived. Heís so wrong at every turn that his presence simplifies every potentially thorny situation. The audienceís moral compass always points in whatever direction his does not.


     There are a few witty bits scattered about here, but too often the film settles for titillation via faux-sophistication. The sheer preposterousness of An Educationís scenario, in which this young, supposedly smart girl is encouraged to make such terrible decisions, is never less than galling. Everyone keeps talking about intelligence, but no one ever demonstrates much of it. Even the rare moments of reproach that Jenny faces hold behind them an insecure plea for her approval. Itís as if teen anxieties were contagious in Ď60s Britain. The filmís audiences are forced into an impossible choice between being as guileless as Mulliganís protagonist and the idiots around her or judging everyone in the movie harshly.


     Itís no surprise that An Educationís ending sells out the entire enterprise and the supposed moral. Everything about the movie is superficial. Even Scherfigís style seems most remarkable for its ability to help us judge characters at a glance. As the film comes to its tidy end, and casually mentions the perpetuation of new lies (this time lies that suggest our heroine has some reserve of still-retained innocence), the movie flirts with irony, but given the overall tone of the piece itís entirely possible that Scherfig and Hornby were just thinking they were being cute.


Rating: 34/100

Jeremy Heilman

September 2009