Sunday, November 8, 2009

FILM REVIEW: "An Education"

A happy coincidence... just two days after writing about my experience at Harvard this summer, I got to see "An Education", a movie that is in the spirit of my last post.

A terrific little film that deserves support, "An Education" (which played at the Chicago Film Festival in October) is the true story of an English prep-school student and her aspirations to attend Oxford, and whose plans are waylaid when she is seduced by a glamorous and mysterious older man. The character of Jenny was inspired by the memoir of journalist Lynn Barber. It is a freewheeling, sincere, and emotional coming-of-age story that entertains us with an intriguing and identifiable story of the divide between the caprices of the heart and the demands of the intellect.  It also, I think,  accurately depicts the attitudes that prevailed about the education of girls in the early '60's. 

As David, the handsome Peter Sarsgaard is heavier of jaw here, winning over his young conquest (and us) with his charm and warm smile, all the while subtly suggesting something more sinister, a Dorian Gray in danger of emerging. We understand Jenny's fascination, even as she comes to find that all is not right in her romantic fantasy, as David and his best friend reveal the less-than-honest business practices that fund their lavish lifestyle.  Even Jenny's parents are convinced, against their better judgment. 

Emma Thompson does a surprisingly good turn as a heavy.  Decked out in a frighteningly large '60's matron's bouffant hairstyle, Thompson embodies the anti-semitic and provincially sexist  headmistress with the right amount of ominous control.  (It would be a shame, though, if Thompson  abandoned her skills as a romatic comedienne in favor the grumpy-old-woman types Shirley MacLaine has played in her later career.)

The movie's ideas are not new but are worth re-visiting.  Even now, there are those who believe that the education of a young woman is for the purpose of attracting a sophisticated and wealthy man.  Jenny herself falls prey to this attitude, but comes to her senses in time, and her resolution of her mistake, and subsequent acceptance to Oxford to study English, is inspiring.

The movie, which creates a lively tone with a wonderful opening credit sequence, overcomes its few flaws.  One wishes Jenny's teacher and mentor were less pointedly plain, because the character as written is quite compelling.  There may be one scene too many of David turning on the charm with Jenny's pragmatic father.  And the final "twist" seems haphazard.

I must say on the whole that it's wonderful to experience a film that not only stirs one's sense of romance but makes an enthusiatic case for intellect.  I was quite happy as the lights came up, refreshed with the energy I need for the process of re-invention.

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