' Cinema Romantico: An Education

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

An Education

If you were ever curious how a movie told from the perspective of the 17 year old Tracy character, played so wonderfully by the young Mariel Hemmingway, in Woody Allen's "Manhattan, where she is dating the much older Isaac, who takes her to fancy Manhattan restaurants and art galleries, only to have to choose between him and taking a scholarship at a school in London, might go, well, "An Education" is probably as close as we'll ever get.

It's London of the 60's and Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a talented, intelligent seventeen year old with plans reinforced strictly by her parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour), the sort of folks who think a Latin dictionary is the perfect birthday present, to attend Oxford immediately after high school. The conversation opening the film between this trio is exquisite and hits a theme I happen to adore. Jenny loves playing cello but as her father states the cello is merely a hobby and/or interest and those are never as important as what it is we "do". Why can't that which we "do" coincide with our hobbies and/or interests? Or, as in a case such as mine, why can't our hobbies and/or interests be more valuable than what we "do"? In some ways this is what "An Education" chooses to investigate.

Into everyone's life a little rain must fall and as the rain falls on Jenny and her poor cello case something else enters into her life - an older man with a smooth, unflinching smile, David (Peter Saarsgaard), who initiates our Meet Cute by first offering to carry Jenny's cello case in his car as she walks alongside before she eventually relents and hops in the car herself for a ride home. She is smitten. He's rather keen, you see, and says smart things and seems to possess that sort of world awareness that must be quite attractive to a young girl with as much intellect and spunk as Jenny.

Inevitably she ignores her fellow classical musician at school (The Baxter of the story who really gets the shaft - by which I mean he's completely forgotten - in the third act, poor guy) to attend lavish parties and concerts and carouse at fancy jazz clubs with David and his hoity toity friends (Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike) and then, in the biggest rush of all, gets whisked away to Paris (Note: The Eiffel Tower appears in less than half a second upon arrival) for twilight picnics on the Seine and such.

Her rigid parents are actually swept off their feet by this David almost as much as Jenny is and so when the dreams of Oxford begin dissipating in the rearview mirror it is up to Jenny's teacher at school (Olivia Williams) and her headmaster (Emma Thompson, great in a bit part who also gets the film's best line) to question the logic of pursuing this older man and letting all her potential fall by the wayside.

But screw potential and Oxford when you're young, alive and in love with such a suave, sophisticated man! There is no possible way a cadet this charming could be hiding a secret! Or is there?

The secret becomes less irritating when you realize "An Education" was based on a real life memoir by Lynn Barber. If this was all true, more or less, I suppose I can accept it. And Lone Scherfig's film does a nice job in both biding its time in getting to the secret and making the secret less the point than Jenny's inevitable life lessons while also keeping this whole enterprise tasteful.

But then again it also makes the film feel a bit formulaic, especially in the third act when it all plays out quite conventionally. This was where I hoped in his first attempt at screenwriting that author Nick Hornby could have injected a bit of his own pizzaz. I admire Hornby's work. Most of his novels line my bookshelf at home. (What's that? What's my favorite Nick Hornby passage of all time, you ask? Why it's from "A Long Way Down" and it's this: "Parents must have favorite kids, right? How could they not? How could, like, Mr. and Mrs. Minogue not prefer Kylie to the other one?" Truer words have never been written. Sorry, Danni.)

He has such a stellar way of taking common scenarios and sprucing them up with details that might at first seem outlandish but are actually quite effective - the new age doctor turning up in the house of the disintegrating marriage in "How To Be Good" or the young protagonist dealing with a teenage pregnancy in "Slam" getting "whizzed" into the future. I was hoping Hornby could add his patented pop culture spice but instead just adds a little grease to the typical memoir mechanics. Such is life.

Still, I think the movie's worth a look, especially because of the star making turn by the 24 year old Mulligan. (Apparently she's drawing a multitude of comparisons to Audrey Hepburn but she looked an awful lot like a British Isle-d Katie Holmes to me.) Describing her role as tricky is an understatement. She is required to display alternate traits and does so convincingly, employing both a quiet dignity that is beyond her age while also retaining the proper amount of youthful cluelessness. She also goes a long way in making Jenny's plight seem more about the journey than the relationship which is key in making sure we don't feel weirded out by the young girl/older guy romance.

Perhaps someday a mainstream movie will tackle that unsettling topic but this movie, as the title tell us, is more about Jenny getting a very early, very different education. And when she gets to Oxford hopefully her education there is as much about what she wants to do as what she wants to "do".

3 comments:

Rory Larry said...

The Eiffel Tower appears and you don't have a paragraph expressing your rage at modern cinematic conceit about the need to show the Eiffel Tower everytime a film has scenes in Paris. Are you mellowing out, sir?

Nicholas Prigge said...

Now I know you hate "Before Sunset", Rory, and despite the tete-a-tete we had in the comments section awhile back I totally respect your right to hate it. But we do need to make mention that "Before Sunset" is the only film I've ever seen set in Paris (and the WHOLE movie is set in Paris, remember) that never shows the Eiffel Tower. At least respect it based on that!

I should also take this moment to mention Salma Hayek's "Frida" which has scenes set in Paris but, perhaps not having the budget to actually film in Paris, establishes the film is in Paris at a particular point by.......showing a postcard of the Eiffel Tower!!! How awesome is that?!!! I must have laughed for 10 minutes straight.

Rory Larry said...

I think an establishing shot is an easy way to orient your audience and the Eiffel Tower is the most recognizable shot there is. Would I prefer to sometimes see the Louvre? or the Arc de Triomphe? Sure but I still am okay with an establishing shot. What I am not okay with is an establishing shot and a type written note to the audience that the location is Paris. Since that is the very point of an establishing shot.