Why is it that some of us work ourselves to death in the monotony of reading, studying and paper-writing for years, while others seem to find a way to lead a relaxed existence without needing to do any of that stuff? I look at people who have managed to live more than comfortably thanks to the fact that they have connections or simply because they've been hardcore go-getters since they were very young, and thus managed a way to find an income no matter what, and it's hard not to be a bit jealous that they managed to pull that off without having to subject themselves to the arduous boredom of studying, even if some of them worked hard at other things they did. This ranting that I just did is pertinent here because it relates to one of the two elements that are treated in Lone Scherfig's AN EDUCATION: the dilemma as to whether to advance yourself academically in order to ostensibly get a better life for yourself or to simply "wing it" and try to get by doing other things. Without a doubt, this is the strongest aspect of the film's storyline.
Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is preparing for her A-level exams, as she hopes to read history at Oxford University. She's the intellectual star at her school: she answers all of her teacher's questions correctly, gets constant A+'s, and even drops French phrases in conversation. The ONLY problem is that her Latin isn't quite up to speed, which might be an issue when she takes her exams. Her paranoid father, Jack (Alfred Molina), stresses the importance of her being able to do well so that she can go to Oxford. Jenny definitely seems more than smart enough, so for the audience, it doesn't seem like it'll be too hard for her to just push herself and do well on her Latin... that is, until Jenny meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), who is several years older than her, yet he enthralls her immediately. She starts going out on dates with him and is exposed to a whole new world of sophisticated parties, great music and movies, drinking and smoking. This is certainly a lot more fun than reading and studying and essay-writing, she thinks. Asked where he went to college, David responds that he went to "the university of life," yet look at how well he's doing for himself. And David is so suave that he even beguiles Jenny's parents into letting her date him. Her parents even start thinking that maybe Jenny doesn't need to go to Oxford at all. The great, fun life with David sure seems tempting. Is it too good to be true?
As I mentioned, the storyline of AN EDUCATION is divided into two elements. The one that concerns Jenny's dilemma of having to decide between academia and bohemia is brilliant. The film's dialogue depicting the conflicting priorities and the possible consequences of choosing one path over another is expertly rendered. Two particular scenes, one in which Jenny argues with her teacher and another in which she does the same with her school principal, are truly great. Unfortunately, the romantic aspect of AN EDUCATION isn't as solid; quite frankly, there are times at which it feels soap-operatic. The secret that is revealed later in the film about David feels way too much like something taken out of daytime programming, and even worse *SPOILER WARNING* is the scene towards the end when Jenny meets David's wife, who automatically "knows" everything way too easily. This sort of thing, in my opinion, is quasi cheating in the cinematic world. *END SPOILERS* Another problem is that there are several occasions in which the film's ponderous score becomes too intrusive. It's a shame because there are a handful of scenes in which we can't avoid being dazzled by the quality of newcomer Mulligan's performance, yet when the score is added to sort of "reinforce" her reactions to things, it feels unnecessary. Jenny's facial expressions are more than enough for us to understand the difficulties she's dealing with.
This is the kind of situation in which the "less is more" mantra applies perfectly. If AN EDUCATION had focused strictly on Jenny's weighing of her two possible life choices, or if the romantic element had been handled better, this would indeed be the Oscar-worthy film that it's being hailed to be. Thankfully, once the romantic aspect of the film is put to bed, the film actually still has several minutes left in its running time, and it wisely chooses to dedicate them to its stronger plot line. This is very much the reason why the film is still worth the watch, along with the fact that Carey Mulligan is a pure delight as the main character, with Alfred Molina giving a perfectly paranoid performance as Jenny's father, and Emma Thompson an expertly deadpan one as the school principal.
The film's title will deceive people as they start watching the movie and they see this impressively smart girl doing so well at her academic endeavors. As it ultimately turns out, Jenny gets an education of a different kind, and one of the film's great strengths is in its ability to ultimately deliver the message that even if you learn a really harsh, seemingly destructive lesson, you still might be able to move forward and learn other things. I have to admit that AN EDUCATION's resolution makes me feel good about the choices I've personally made in terms of the pursuit of academic advancement, but it also made me think about how I've had to sort of reconcile that with what I've learned outside the classroom. Even if Jenny made mistakes or was naive at certain points, it's hard not to be happy about the path that she ends up following, and there's no doubt that she's now in a better spot than she was at the start of the film. While I can't argue that AN EDUCATION is a masterpiece, if you can walk out of a movie telling yourself "I'm so glad that she's gonna be okay," then there's no doubt that the filmmakers have done something right.