Stay in school, kids

Stay in school, kids

Shreya Shankar

Though somewhat contrived, "An Education" teaches a valuable lesson

Some foreign films can breeze in, showing Hollywood just how much more it has left to learn about good film making.

Enter "An Education".

Feeling wise and cultured beyond her 16 years, protagonist Jenny Miller (Carey Mulligan) yearns for a romanticized lifestyle of whirlwind trips to Paris, pre-Rafaelite art and classical concerts. The English prodigy is on the brink of achieving her family’s long-time dream, an Oxford education, when a charismatic older man arrives on the scene.

David (Peter Saarsgard) is a window into the world that Jenny wants to inhabit — glamorous, witty, intriguing, yet surprisingly harmless and unassuming — and in a stroke of dramatic irony, clearly inappropriate for Jenny. 

The initial uneasy feeling upon seeing a thirty-something man wooing a teenager quickly  dissipates, and is replaced by a dazzled confidence in David’s morals. Like Jenny herself, the audience eases into David’s steady courtship, albeit a bit more apprehensively than Jenny.

As the relationship progresses, David’s skeletons begin to stroll casually out of the closet, allowing for fleeting glimpses into David’s shadier dealings with art and property that would slip right past a less attentive member of the audience.

Though Mulligan’s character is the obvious focus of the film, her incongruous suitor proves to be the real star, deftly played with unobtrusive finesse and dignity. Another unexpectedly brilliant performance comes from Jenny’s father (Alfred Molina), with Molina falling naturally into his role as the rude but well-meaning father.

Other aspects of the film play out less organically. As suggested by the pre-Beatles 1960s English backdrop and Mulligan’s mischievous smile, "An Education" perfectly sets the stage for a number of highly contrived Holly Golightly and "Roman Holiday" allusions. The glasses, the cigarettes and the classic shop window could have been a subtly clever homage to Audrey Hepburn, whose successor Mulligan is being touted as. Unfortunately, the film is too self-conscious to pull it off, coming across as a tawdry imitation of a classic.

Compared to other 2009 movie releases, however, the film is a welcome foray into a world free of vampires and zombies and crude adolescent humor. On the whole, "An Education" is an exemplary movie —  Hollywood, take notes.