A little learning is a dangerous thing, and a lot can be pretty damn devastating. That’s certainly the case in Danish director Lone Scherfig’s “An Education,” which is built around a superb, supple screenplay by novelist Nick Hornby and carried by a stellar cast’s consistently fine acting.
At the core of Scherfig’s film is the theme that there is book learning and, then, there is life learning. The latter is a lot harder than the former, my grandmother often said, because life gives you the tests first and the lessons after. That’s certainly the case with very smart, very pretty, very 16-year-old Jenny (Carey Mulligan), who, attending a good private school in 1961 suburban England, yearns to escape her dull life and, in the words of Auntie Mame, “Live! Live!”
A glance at the historical context suggests that Jenny is not only Jenny but also a stand-in for a whole youth culture, especially females, poised to break free of long-standing restrictions and behavioral chains in what will become a social and cultural revolution.
Hovered over by anxious parents played well and movingly by Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour, Jenny works to achieve what she thinks is their unimaginative dream: get into Oxford. All she does, she does to look good on an entrance essay. She lives in the “someday,” when she wants to carpe the diem now.
Offering her a ride as she stands with her cello in the rain comes the snake in this boring Garden of Eden, charming, 30-something David (Peter Sarsgaard). Talking to her of composers and art, representing all the adult sexual freedom and cultural expansion Jenny longs for, he offers her an apple she can’t refuse.
As David lures Jenny on to broader and broader life experience, Mulligan shows us the vulnerability, the age-appropriate stupidity/innocence lurking just beneath the surface of the precocious sophistication. Mulligan, 20-something when shooting the film, is a good enough actress to make us see her as 16 going on 20-something.
The reckoning must come, of course. Dance, and you’ll probably pay that piper. When the bill comes due here, it elicits a swirl of emotions. Empathy, as we remember being that age and feeling that way. Admiration, as we watch Jenny’s painful epiphany and response. Sympathy, as we see the nuances in Molina’s fabulous portrayal of a parent feeling not only his own pain but his daughter’s as well. And those are just the beginning.
There is humor in “An Education,” but the tone of this film couldn’t be further from that of “Auntie Mame.” No matter. Throughout, I kept hearing softly in the back of my mind, Mame Dennis’ signature assertion: “Life’s a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death.”
Because she’s only 16, Jenny mistakes empty calories for soul nourishment, but at least she shows the courage “ and imagination “ to take a bite and thrust herself onto the dance floor. “Kathryn Jenson White