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10th Anniversary: A SERIOUS MAN

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10th Anniversary: “An Education” 

By Cláudio Alves

An Education tells the story of Jenny Mellor, an English schoolgirl who, in 1961, falls into the trap of an older man’s affections. In the process, she almost squanders away her dreams of Oxford, thinking she’s trading a hopelessly boring life for one of excitement. After all, if the years slaving over books are the best of one’s life, why bother? 

One of the loveliest aspects of the film is how it refuses to offer easy answers to its dilemmas. Throughout, we see many women who chose different paths and, thanks to director Lone Scherfig and screenwriter Nick Hornby, all of them are humanized and sympathetic. There are no villains in An Education, no one is wrong or completely right. These are people and not mere plot points or narrative mechanisms. We can imagine all of them living their lives, being the protagonists of their stories.

It’s not surprising that An Education has lived on as an actors’ showcase above all else. Many of its performers would go on to greater fame, though the star has arguably not yet reached these heights again...

Back in 2009, An Education felt like “a star is born” moment for Carey Mulligan. Many compared her to Audrey Hepburn and she was even Oscar-nominated. However, the golden prospects many envisioned didn’t come to pass, no matter how much she has proven her talents since. Shame, Far from the Madding Crowd and Wildlife all feature admirable performances, but she never again captured the Academy’s attention. After the brilliance of An Education, even her best efforts feel like disappointments. That’s how much of an impression she made. (Still, Mulligan has never been lacking for work since, and works regularly in TV, stage, and film.)

Jenny is the sort of young woman who wears her precociousness as a badge of honor. She’s still immature and Mulligan illustrates this by showing us how Jenny hides beneath a mask of faux sophistication. When she dances seductively, she giggles before schooling her face. Other times, Mulligan manages to highlight Jenny’s innocence and her harshness in the same line reading, showing how this schoolgirl can be cruel. Though the character might be lost in a voyage of self-discovery, the actress never is and her performance is as assured as it is impressive.

Peter Sarsgaard played David, the debonair man who oozes the sort of sophistication Jenny craves and appreciates her good taste too. With a perfect cocktail of smarminess and charm, Sarsgaard is perfect and, at the time, still seemed en route to an Oscar nomination in years to come. Boys Don’t Cry, Shattered Glass and Kinsey all paved the way for such glories and An Education only solidified his claim to gold. Since then, the actor hasn’t managed to secure any Oscary role and his work has largely not been as impressive since.

On the other hand, Rosamund Pike and Dominic Cooper, who played David’s cohorts, capitalized on their golden promise and have transmuted into veritable stars. Pike, who spent many years as a scene-stealing wonder, capable of complicating even the most thankless of roles, finally got a part worthy of her talents with Gone Girl and more leading roles have followed. Cooper, in the meantime, dipped his toes in the MCU (as Howard Stark) and became a TV star thanks to Preacher.

As for Jenny’s parents, Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour, they continue to be brilliant character actors. From all the An Education supporting cast, Molina surely came closest to a nomination, in part because he is the loudest of them all. Still, what I most value about his work are the quiet bits, like the painful silence of a father who knows he has failed his daughter. Seymour also makes the best of all the little morsels of characterization the script offers. She shows us glimpses of this housewife’s interior life and, along with Molina, telegraphs how David seduced Jenny’s parents as much as he seduced her.

All of this is possible thanks to the way Scherfig shoots actors, valuing the relationship between their bodies in space and the way a person listens. Olivia Williams and Emma Thompson certainly listen well, being on the receiving ends of Mulligan’s showiest monologues. Their scenes are some of An Education’s greatest, both women cutting through Jenny’s self-assuredness with a majestically sharp lines. Though neither Williams or Thomspon have made a blip on Oscar’s radar since then, they deserved to with The Ghost Writer and Saving Mr. Banks.

Sally Hawkins has one scene in An Education and she makes the most of it. As David’s wife, she is the final blow to Jenny’s heart and there’s delicious brutality in how she uses her children as witless, but effective, props. Hawkins is brilliant and that's only  become more undeniable in the past ten years, amassing two Oscar nominations. Due to SAG’s rules, Hawkins wasn’t included in An Education’s Outstanding Performance by a Cast nomination. Seymour suffered the same fate as well as Matthew Beard, who turns a rejected boyfriend into a rhapsody of teenage awkwardness.

As we celebrate An Education on its 10th anniversary, we invite you to remember its actors, their brilliance and long-lasting careers. Applauses must also be offered to the amazing casting director Lucy Bevan whose work in this film is more than enough to justify the creation of a Best Casting Oscar.

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Reader Comments (22)

My favorite of the 10 Best Picture nominees that year. Mulligan is exquisite and the Screenplay superb. Should have gone 3 for 3 at the Oscars.

October 9, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterken s.

Should've won the Oscar and generally underrated esp in Wildlife..

October 9, 2019 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

Molina desrved a nomination just for the biscuits scene.

October 9, 2019 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

Doesn’t “Oscar’s radar” mean you were at least a good part of the conversation even if you didn’t get nominated? Otherwise it’s a pretty shitty radar. Emma Thompson was very much on Oscar’s radar for Mr Banks.

As for Mulligan, she should’ve nominated for Mudbound. And somebody out there must be n her side for Drive and Shame to be nominated performances too.

October 9, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMafer

Shame yes Drive no.

October 9, 2019 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

Wildfire and Inside Llewyn Davis

October 9, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterken s.

Have to disagree: Peter Sarsgaard's David is a villain. He's a manipulative, adulterous, lying thief.

October 9, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterCash

For me she's surpassed her performance in it twice: Shame and Wildlife. But nobody saw either of them, including awards voters.

October 9, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterTony Ruggio

I meant Wildlife,of course. Will this exceptional film ever be (re)discovered?

October 9, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterken s.

Cash - I think David's the closest the film comes to a clear antagonist, but even he seems more callous and pathetic than evil. He's an awful man, but I also believe the script and direction sometimes seem to sympathize with him, at least in regards to his affection for Jenny and the influence of his lifestyle on her.

While I despise him by the end of the story, I don't think the film tonally paints him as a villain.

October 9, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterCláudio Alves

A lovely and stylish film, beautifully shot. Scherfig wisely filled it with beautiful, talented people. Kind of a confection of a movie?

Mulligan—in addition to being great in it—deserves credit for elevating such a tidy little parable about doing your homework and avoiding sketchy men. I don't get the praise for the screenplay then, or now.

October 9, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJF

JF - Before this rewatch, I mostly held that same opinion. I thought the film an empty confection with nice costumes and stellar acting, as well as a conclusion too neat and moralistic for its own good.

This time, however, I found it an interesting character study and a precious meditation on the value of education. Jenny raises many passionate questions about the value of education in a society that, because of her gender, systematically robs her of a future of her choosing.

Despite these questions being raised, they're never answered. All the adults, especially the teachers, find themselves silent when faced with them. Even Jenny, despite her final choices, never verbalizes or seems to be sure of a conclusion to the conflicts her story has revealed. Maybe this can be seen as bad writing on the part of Nick Hornby, but I found it rather thought-provoking.

I often feel that our society tends to value education as solely a means to an end. An education is only valuable as long as it's preparing the individual for professional success. When the end of the process seems as dire as in Jenny's case, is an education still worth it? What's the point of it all?

What the film seems to show, is that education in itself can be valuable. Jenny's experiences, both personal misadventures and scholastic endeavors have value to her. If nothing else, they have shaped her and helped her understand who she is. They have enriched her worldview and challenged her, opened up her horizons and given her pains that are beyond words as well as pleasures.

Don't forget the film is based on the memoirs of a journalist. I think it works better when seen as a reflection on one's youth rather than a parable about the importance of doing homework and avoiding sketchy men. I am aware that I might be too generous and projecting. As the descendant of many generations of teachers, matters of education weight heavily on my mind.

Sorry if this is too long, but I felt like I wanted to write much more about the film than I ended up doing. I focused on the acting in this article, but the truth is I think "An Education" is much more interesting than I initially gave it credit for.

October 9, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterCláudio Alves

Love this film. Brilliance all around. Thought Scherfig would give more treats but she takes her time I guess.

October 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMikey67

When this originally came out, I took two friends (both teachers) who don’t go to the movies very much. I thought the subject would interest them.

After the movie, they asked me why they cast such an unattractive man as the lead. I tried to explain that he was a well known respected actor, and that his participation probably helped the movie get financing.

They were unsatisfied with my answer, and kept muttering about how he made the movie unbelievable. That wasn’t the post movie conversation I had expected.

We did, however, agree that Rosalind Pike was our favourite character.

October 10, 2019 | Unregistered Commenteradri


Thanks; I'll give it a rewatch. I'm a big admirer of what Scherfig and her assembled talent did here, FWIW. I don't even think the screenplay is bad. I just think whatever depth the film conveys is largely thanks to Mulligan's sophisticated performance. With assists from Pike, Thompson, Molina, Hawkins...

October 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJF

I have never found Peter Sarsgaard compelling. He rubs me the wrong way. Maybe his turn in Unconditional Love marked my appreciation of him.

October 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPedro

Not a perfect film but still underrated. A very easy rewatch for me every time due to everything, especially my onscreen girlfriend, Carey. :)

October 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSanty C.

Fantastic film. Mulligan should have won the Oscar. Great supporing cast as well.

October 11, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

Underrated Mulligan performance: Never Let Me Go.

October 11, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBruno

Love this film. How this article only looks at it through the lens of Oscar is a little ridiculous, given there’s so much of interest in it.

And it is implied that Mulligan has had an underwhelming career since, but not at all. Despite not being Oscar nominated, she has been in important films (Shame, Drive, Wildlife, Great Gatsby, Mudbound, Far From the Madding Crowd, Inside Llewyn Davis, even Let Me Go and Suffragette), nominated for a Tony, had a starring role in a BBC miniseries... I think she’s doing well.

October 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterLucky

Lucky - I did try to look at it through the lens of Oscar. In part, to reflect on how many people wrote about Mulligan has one who'd win an Oscar in the next ten years, back in 2009. Many compared her to Audrey Hepburn, for instance. Mulligan is an actress I love and I think she's had a great career, but not an Oscar-friendly one, despite what this film seemed to suggest. In a way, she's a much more interesting actress than what one might have supposed since she doesn't chain herself to "awardsy" prestige cinema.

This is a limited analysis of the film, that's true. I could've written about its interrogations of the concept and value of education, the character-defining costumes or other elements, but decided to look at it as an actors showcase and those actors' relationship to Oscar. Maybe it was a wrong-headed choice, but just because this piece only focuses on Oscar, doesn't mean I'm saying that's the only way to look at An Education.

Thanks for your feedback, nonetheless. It's very appreciated.

October 13, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterCláudio Alves

Claudio - it’s ok, we all live for the Oscars around here! It’s just that I really, really like this film and I feel it doesn’t get discussed enough. I think it contains interesting ideas about the purpose of “life” (not just an educated life) and, in that way, it makes sense to me that it comes from the same writer of Wild and Brooklyn, two films that, like An Education, raise deeper questions than what one may assume in the first place.

October 13, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterLucky

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