Someone once said that perfect movies are boring and only flawed movies intriguing, and I would generally agree with that: there is a charm in roughness, and a power in pushing envelopes too far in the wrong direction, and a fascination in a filmmaker’s reach exceeding his grasp.
And then along comes a movie like An Education, about which the number of things that are absolutely perfect is impossible to measure… and it’s thrilling and captivating anyway.
It’s exhilarating to see a movie so polished a piece of craftsmanship as this one, and yet not so glossy and shiny that you have to avert your eyes lest the glare blind you. It’s exhilarating to see a movie so elegant that it becomes a welcome throwback to Hollywood’s golden era of the late 1930s and early 1940s as well as an ironic just-right reflection of its young heroine’s aspirations and desires, right down to how unrealistic and inspired by impossible fantasy they are. It’s exhilarating to see a movie so confident in itself that it allows its protagonist to be deeply flawed and terribly worthy of the one-liner smackdown she gets toward the end of the film, and allows its “villain” to be so charming and likeable that I, at least, completely understand my own irresistible temptation to put softening quotation marks around villain even though he doesn’t deserve them.
It’s almost an unneeded bonus that An Education is that rarity: a movie about a female character that treats her like a person, and not like a prize or a foil or a motivating factor for the flawed hero to make himself a better man so as to be worthy of her. The cinematic pedestal that The Movies so often put women on — as faultless and complete, as unrequiring of growth… as, in other words, less than human — is nowhere in sight here. And that may be the most exhilarating thing about this wonderful, wonderful film.
It’s 1961 when 16-year-old Jenny (Carey Mulligan [Pride & Prejudice], so perfect you’ll want to weep) meets 30-something David (Peter Sarsgaard [Orphan, Rendition], perfectly nailing the accent). She is smart and bored in suburban London, which is weighted down by lingering postwar deprivation: this is a drab place, pre-swinging and pre-Beatles, and she longs for Paris and the sophistication of art and glamour and fashion and anything that will make her feel alive. David drives a sporty roadster and takes her to concerts and supper clubs in the West End; he has posh, enchanting friends (Dominic Cooper [The Duchess, Mamma Mia!], perfectly unexpectedly profound, and Rosamund Pike [Doom, The Libertine], perfectly petty); he is handsome and suave. He is everything a teenaged girl could possibly want in a first boyfriend.
He is not everything he seems, of course.
Based on the memoir by Lynn Barber — she is something of a celebrity journalist in England, if unknown in the U.S. — and directed by another woman, Lone Scherfig, there is an undeniable ring of truth to An Education that will resonate, I think, with many women, whether or not you experienced the kind of wakeup call that Jenny does as a result of her relationship with David. Because we all do experience something similar, and in many ways it’s not the same coming-of-age that boys have (the varied stripes of which have been well documented in film). Maybe it’s not happening to today’s 16-year-olds, but even for me, 25 years younger than Barber and Jenny (and ten years younger than Scherfig), there was, at every turn, the reminder that expectations would be somewhat different for you had you been born a boy. And that’s woven through Jenny’s experiences here, too, in the whiplash speed with which her parents (Alfred Molina [Nothing Like the Holidays, Silk] and Cara Seymour [Hotel Rwanda, Birth], both perfectly lovely as people with small minds but big hearts) shift gears to welcome David — and the prospect of marrying off their only child to a charming, apparently well-off man — and away from the goal of getting Jenny into Oxford: after all, university was only going to be good for snagging her a husband anyway, right?
Nick Hornby’s (Fever Pitch, About a Boy) screenplay — see? men can understand girls and women perfectly well, as long as they accept that girls and women are people too, just like boys and men — is rife with pitch-perfect examples of adolescent life that are particular to women but also those that are recognizable to men, in the figuring out who you are and what you want out of life, in the taking your lumps when you choose poorly. And there’s the looming sense that Jenny’s awakening is the same one that’s about to rock the entire Western world, with the invention of sex as something people actually talk about, and the arrival of music that is actually dangerous, and the breaking free of the past in favor of a future that — at least at the time — looked to be radically different than the past.
It all couldn’t be a more perfect depiction of a world that was not perfect, and was, perhaps, on the verge of becoming even less so. But no one knew that then, and Jenny’s yearning becomes our yearning, even still today, that the future will be all the better for us having taken a hard knock now. That might be a foolish notion, but it’s a perfectly hopeful one, and one that An Education knows is worth hanging on to.