In the past few weeks, I’ve reviewed four movies set in the 1960s. (One can see the autobiographical filmmakers’ distress: Starting January 1st, it’ll be accurate to say that the ’60s were a whopping 50 years in the past. Perhaps we’re experiencing a collective baby-boomer mid-century crisis.) The best of the lot is An Education, which is set in a London that was still tiptoeing out of the ’50s. Sidling soft-shoed into the future is Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a fresh-faced schoolgirl of 16, whose first step is projected to be an English degree at cozy Oxford. Her second, in all likelihood, would be in the direction of bourgeois drudgery—not that this twinkling teen fancies thinking so far ahead. Enter David (Peter Sarsgaard), an experienced man of the world, who challenges her notions—or does he?
Deftly made and engrossing, with a naturalistic sensitivity to its time and place, and a poetic affinity for its heroine, An Education is probably one of the most enjoyable pictures so far this year. But at a time when movies are so often sucking up to “influencers”—the self-described beautiful and damned of hipsterdom—this is a film that becomes pointy-edged square. It uses its vertices to stab at characters. And yet, the performers are so good, they dodge the blows. I don’t think one can blame the director, Lone Scherfig, or her crew; the movie has been so competently made—with a light touch that’s neither impersonal nor pretentious—that the production values almost transcend the flaws. But if the driver is blind, the make of the car hardly matters. The metaphorical motorist here, I can only assume, is Lynn Barber: the British journalist on whose memoirs Nick Hornby’s screenplay was based.
I have not read her book, which the script purportedly veers away from in some details, but from what I can tell, Barber never quite recovered from her break-up with the David figure. (Or, perhaps, Hornby wished she never did.) Speaking to a fellow interviewer, she was quoted to have said, “you should start like I do from a position of really disliking people, and then compel them to win you over.” This is about the opposite of how the movie treats David—that dastardly dissimulator! He finances his pseudo-aristocratic languor (as well as the Ravel concerts and Pre-Raphaelite auctions and excursions to Paris that he lavishes on callow teenie-bopper Jenny) with minor criminal enterprises such as blockbusting and finagling unsavvy packrats out of their pricey belongings; and there are other, shadier secrets he fails to divulge. He’s far from a blameless fellow, and quite unsuitable as a reliable spouse; but the film implies that he’s swindling Jenny, too. One look at Sarsgaard and you know better: David is a troubled soul, and his love for Jenny is more than a hoax.
Although Hornby’s dialogue is fresh and rhythmic, his little premonitory stammers issue out like notes sung too sharply. David’s associate Danny (Dominic Cooper), for instance, states early on that he “likes stuff”—ergo, his connoisseurship is no more than shallow materialism. As soon as Danny’s girlfriend Helen (Rosamund Pike) is introduced, she reveals herself to have the I.Q. of a lobotomized sea sponge; she can’t understand why Jenny would spruce up her speech with little bon mots en français, let alone recognize that Jenny’s “gibberish” is French. We see no other women among David’s bohemian set, so Helen sets the standard; the bar is so low that only a mouse could pass through. And since in the movie’s eyes David is also a mouse (or, to flummox my metaphor, a rat), Hornby sets little traps for his charming cosmopolite. At its lowest, the movie stoops to the oldest trick in the book: It insinuates that David is lackluster in bed. This sentiment is voiced by a girl who knows no alternative; you couldn’t get further below the belt without hitting the floor. David does nothing to make amends by the film’s close, which is true to his character, and probably Barber’s life. But when Jenny narrates at the end that she later visits France with a new boyfriend—presumably her own age—and notes that “it was as if I’d never been,” a little falsehood siren registers in one’s mind like a cuckoo clock. Who’s she kidding that David has been bowdlerized from her life? He’s the focus of her autobiography! Emotionally, the scenario tears him out of the picture like an erstwhile lover carved from a photo with scissors. No matter how sharp the scissors, however, Sarsgaard’s image is so strong that I could still see him beneath the outline—he’s more than negative space.