An Education- Carey Mulligan Teaches Young Actresses a Thing or Two
Every once in a while, a movie becomes less about the subject matter than it does about the birth of a star. The subject matter in An Education is compelling, and the script and supporting acting is all tight, but when it boils down, that’s not what I remember. I remember Carey Mulligan’s smile. Mulligan has a natural charisma, seeming completely at ease carrying this coming-of-age movie, and does it so effortlessly that anything strange or challenging in the film’s execution gets glossed over whenever Mulligan enters the room looking like a reincarnation of Audrey Hepburn. As the character experiences love, life, sex, and heartbreak for the first time, she emerges as a mature woman at the end, and just as the character comes of age, Mulligan comes to stardom, and we’re more than happy to come along with her.
Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a bright young schoolgirl on her way home from orchestra practice in the rain when an older man named David (Peter Saarsgard) offers her a ride. He seems educated, mature, artistic, and worldly– everything that the people at her school aren’t. Her studies are bogging her down, and while she wants to learn, her father (Alfred Molina) is so strict in his monitoring of her work that she rebels by listening to music and smoking cigarettes. David lures her into a world of jazz clubs, vacations, and posh hotel suites with David’s business partner (Dominic Cooper) and his wife (Rosamund Pike). Luckily for Jenny, David knows exactly how to talk her parents into liking and trusting him, so she discovers a whole new world, a world she desperately would like to be a part of. However, when she finds out that David is a criminal, she has to wrestle with how long she can ignore it in order to sustain her new thrilling lifestyle and how much of her home and school life she is willing to cast aside.
Director Lone Scherfig has assembled quite an ensemble here. Alfred Molina hits his role out of the park as the penny-pinching father who still means well, even as he pushes his daughter more than she’d like to be pushed. There’s a moment in the film where he lets his guard down, and it hits you harder than you’d have expected. Dominic Cooper has a very sly wit about him, and Rosamund Pike (coming off a great performance in the sci-fi flick Surrogates) takes what could have easily been the prototypical bimbo blonde and makes her secretly remorseful about her inability to keep up with the others. They’re both terrific. Olivia Williams, Emma Thomson, and Sally Hawkins all do their usual great work in very small roles here– Hawkins in particular only shows up for a scene, but it’s a heart-wrenching couple of minutes.
Peter Saarsgard is usually one of a film’s strengths, but his performance here had me torn. One must walk a delicate tightrope when playing the much older corruptive love interest to our young innocent high school heroine. If he doesn’t manage to at least be likable, we will wonder why our protagonist goes against her initial gut instincts and continues to be by his side. Saarsgard looks so much older than Mulligan (he’s 38, she’s 24, and she’s playing someone in high school) that already it will undoubtedly make some uncomfortable. He floats by on being lovable, charming, and seeming to have her best interests at heart at first… but then when we discover what he does for a living, he seems more creepy than likable, and I found myself rooting for the end of the relationship, which I’m certain isn’t necessarily the goal.
Then again, a lack of likability isn’t a film sinker. In a way, it helps what is best about this film: its lack of predictability, making it seem very true to real life. Sometimes characters buck the traditional Hollywood film response in order to make or take unconventional or sometimes bad wisdom. Restless youths and struggling parents make choices that they feel will best serve themselves, and here those choices sometimes backfire. Olivia Williams serves as the teacher who cares most about the success of the students, and having been a high school teacher for a short time now myself, and having had conversations with a couple of students who seem to be making life decisions without forethought of long-term consequences, I sympathized with the difficulties she went through.
Yet even as she made some poor choices, you never blame Jenny. Mulligan seems so sunny and eager to learn that when she makes the wrong choices, you blame those around her. She faces these awkward crossroads in life with a twinkle in her eye. Just like any teenage girl, she experiences highs that she wants to experience forever and lows that make her want to shut out the world forever. Unlike most teenager depictions, however, she has an intelligence and self-assured demeanor that makes her compelling at every turn. Scherfig also sees the Audrey Hepburn resemblance and makes sure to dress her in outfits that showcase her long Hepburnesque neck at every opportunity. In a film full of smart writing and interesting performances, Mulligan carries the whole story with a strength that is shocking coming from who is essentially a newcomer. In one scene, she faces down the great Emma Thompson, chews her out with confidence, and leaves the room. How many young actresses can believably do that?