Sunday, November 8, 2009

An Education

Did you hear the one about how at this year’s Academy Awards, there will be ten Best Picture nominees instead of five? I make no secret of my disdain for the masturbatory political machinations of the Oscars. I get a morbid thrill when a development like this is announced – year after year, a hallowed tradition of my movie-loving youth manages to lower itself deeper into its slum (wink). You know what actual hallowed traditions and sacred institutions don’t need to do? Re-brand. But since fewer people are watching the Oscars every year, (and nobody wanted to host them, either, as you also may have heard) they’ll keep coming up with these desperate pleas for relevance and ratings.

It’s a fair bet that one of those ten slots will go to An Education, a ‘polite’ British Bildungsroman about a sweet and innocent sixteen-year-old girl and the creep in his thirties who wins her virginity. Carey Mulligan is the little-known but striking young actress who inhabits Jenny, our moppet protagonist. I’ll say it is rather fun to watch her dance around an ensemble of prestige actors.

The debate of this morality tale, as we’re told seven times in the trailer and several more in the film proper, is between Jenny’s application to Oxford (boring!) and her romance (fun!) with Peter Sarsgaard’s David, a charming man at least a decade older than she. It’s Mulligan’s precocious charisma that lends the film its spare moments of depth and ambiguity. It’s plainly obvious that this is a naïve girl making bad decisions despite the warnings of her Academy Award-nominated elders. But if Mulligan is so special and clever, maybe she should be allowed to make an unpopular decision. Perhaps she knows something we don’t.

Formulating a plot summary makes my skin crawl, but here I go (by the way, I’m gonna spoil this one). Her father is overbearing and expects her to get into Oxford. She’s the smartest girl in her class by a long shot, but she’s hot so she still has friends. She has an overbearing teacher and an overbearing headmistress. She meets David one day when he offers her a lift home from school in his fancy car. He lays on the charm pretty thick, and it’s not long before he’s sweet-talked her parents into letting her go to Paris with him for the weekend and he’s trying to pop her cherry in a dingy airport hotel room with a banana. (I can’t make this stuff up.)

It’s a profoundly unpleasant film. I’m not sure what’s more unsettling: the dramatically fascinating premise of borderline child abuse or the fact that nobody involved in making the thing seems to be aware of how creepy her situation is. The storytelling here is just a curtain held over what amounts to little more than a vaguely conservative “Stay In School” PSA. The choice between David, the lying con-artist thief who’ll break your heart and Oxford, the prestigious university, is a pretty obvious one to those of us playing Aesop in the audience. But here we sit, having our noses banged with it.

Jenny has four female role models: 1) her mother, who cowers at her father’s tantrums; 2) her teacher, who doesn’t want to see her throw her life away; 3) the headmistress, played by Emma Thompson, still kicking; and 4) David’s best friend’s blonde philistine idiot girlfriend, who asks why she reads books when she could read magazines. Surrounded by ciphers such as these, it’s easy to see why our young heroine is so confused. The only remotely interesting person in her life is holding fruit between her legs, calling her “Minnie” and asking if he can “just see them.”

A smidgen of dramatic tension comes from the slow leak of David’s secrets. First he’s charming, then he’s creepy, then he’s an art thief, then he’s perpetrating elaborate real estate fraud, then there’s the bit with the banana. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. He’s already married, of course, and Jenny won’t discover this until she’s dropped out of school for him. Poor, naïve girl should’ve listened to Emma Thompson.

It doesn’t matter, though, that he’s married, and after that revelation David is never seen again. There are no consequences to her juvenile hedonism. What matters is that she partakes in a final-act “studying montage” and gets into Oxford.

An Education is Oscar Bait. It’s mediocre filmmaking with a conservative heart and a British accent, a bit of lavish period detail and a tidy happy ending. It also has the secret ingredient of middlebrow morality with just enough distance from the actual issues to render the whole affair offensive to anybody who cares about what movies are actually capable of. The fact that Nick Hornby wrote the thing I must ascribe either to the increasingly-believable notion that High Fidelity and About a Boy were flukes or that he just doesn’t know anything about women. Either way, I don’t know why we put up with this tripe.

This review appeared in a slightly different form in The Montague Reporter. Support your print media while you still can!

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