Yes! Now that it's prestige-movie season, my occasional blog series from last year returns!
Title of movie: An Education
Reasons for anticipation: I love female coming-of-age stories and wish there were more of them, so I believe in supporting these kinds of movies with my money. Furthermore, An Education got great reviews, especially for newcomer lead actress Carey Mulligan, and I really liked the trailer.
The moment that clinched it for me comes at the end of the trailer, when Mulligan says, "I suppose you think I'm a ruined woman," and Emma Thompson retorts, "You're not a woman." I loved how Mulligan says her line with a sort of dreamy defiance--she seems almost to relish the idea of being a "ruined woman," because it sounds intriguing, like something out of a novel. And then I loved how Thompson's reply hits Mulligan's character exactly where it would hurt the most. Good writing and good acting--this looked promising!
Also, I've mentioned before that one of the novels closest to my heart is A.S. Byatt's The Virgin in the Garden, and An Education seemed like it had a lot in common with that book. Both works are based around the following scenario: "Post-WWII, pre-Beatles England. A precocious and ambitious teenage girl yearns to go to university, meet sophisticated people, and leave her middle-class life behind. But she is also desperate to lose her virginity to an older man." So, because I doubt anyone will ever make a movie of The Virgin in the Garden, An Education seemed like the next best thing.
My verdict: I was not disappointed by An Education, and I definitely recommend it. Aside from the way that it gets predictable and perfunctory in its last ten minutes, it's a very good movie about the kind of female character that the cinema could use more of.
Yes, I probably am predisposed to like a film about a smart girl, the only child of respectable and caring parents, who desires more out of life--a teenage Francophile who loves Ravel and having conversations with "people who know lots about lots." This character, named Jenny (Mulligan), thinks she's found her ticket to excitement and cultural experience in David (Peter Sarsgaard), a good-looking wheeler-dealer who gives her a lift during a rainstorm one day. David proceeds to charm the starry-eyed girl and her more skeptical parents. Jenny is drawn into his world, even as her teachers caution her to slow down and David's mysterious lifestyle throws up its own red flags.
An Education is my favorite kind of comedy--one where the laughs arise out of character and situation, instead of being caused by gags or wisecracks or people acting quirky for no reason. Alfred Molina has the funniest role, as Jenny's father, a man so complacent in his bourgeois prejudices that he's wrong about nearly everything--he misreads both Jenny and David, to catastrophic effect. Rosamund Pike plays a character named Helen (the girlfriend of David's pal Danny), doing a twist on the dumb-blonde stereotype--not a sweet and breathy Marilyn Monroe type, but a real woman who just happens to be incredibly dim. Special mention goes to Emma Thompson for toning down her natural likability and playing an unsympathetic role.
The 1961 setting looks stylish when it needs to (sad that Mad Men is over for the year? go see An Education) but the scenes at Jenny's house and school show why our heroine finds Britain so drab. One particularly breathtaking shot has Carey Mulligan's tear-stained face briefly illuminated by the headlights of a car as it drives away.
Now, about all those reviews that are calling Mulligan the next Audrey Hepburn. As a longtime Hepburnologist (Audrey division), I feel uniquely qualified to comment on this. Basically, I think it's a bit facile, and runs the risk of putting Mulligan in a box where she doesn't quite fit. For one thing, I doubt Mulligan will ever be a contender for the title of Most Beautiful Woman in the World. She's pretty, and convincingly glows with enthusiasm, but she's not in Audrey's realm of otherworldly beauty.
But being the Most Beautiful Woman in the World is a great responsibility; it means that audiences expect you to be endlessly charming and adorable. Therefore Mulligan's everyday kind of prettiness allows her to play characters who are a little more complex, even unlikable, than Audrey Hepburn's tended to be. Jenny has a dry sense of humor, a ruthless pragmatic streak (she's thrilled by David's attentions, but on some level, she knows he's a means to an end), and an aspirational pretentiousness. We understand why she's pretentious, and can sympathize with her attempts to look sophisticated; but we can also understand why her friends say "You cow" when she brags in French about her boyfriend. And Jenny's love of French existentialism is not just a pose: its jaded attitude suits her personality. Upon losing her virginity, the prototypical Audrey Hepburn character would, I imagine, snuggle close to her lover, rest her head on his chest and murmur words of bliss. She would not, as Jenny does, go to the window, light a cigarette, and proclaim "All that poetry and all those songs about something that hardly lasts for a moment."
It occurred to me recently that in Audrey Hepburn movies, Audrey rarely interacts with other women... particularly not with women her own age. But one of the nicest things about An Education is that it surrounds Jenny with so many female characters--Helen, her mother, her teachers, her schoolfriends. I read a review that pointed out that each of these women is a potential role model for Jenny, and her decisions about which woman to emulate are just as important as her decision to have an affair with David. I would never have guessed that Nick Hornby had it in him to write so many female roles so well.
There are plenty of movies about young women who seek love and acceptance; plenty of movies about poor women who strive to escape poverty; plenty of movies where the female character just wants to have sex with a hot guy. An Education (and The Virgin in the Garden) does something different. More than love, or sexual pleasure, or money, or status and respectability, its heroine seeks to experience new things, to cultivate aesthetic and intellectual tastes, and to carve out her own identity. We're not necessarily used to stories about women who want these things--in the movies, it's usually men who crave knowledge and experience. But An Education shows how Jenny's ability to get what she wants is both facilitated and complicated by the fact that she is pretty and female. And therefore, she won't just learn what she wants to know--she'll also learn what she needs.