An invisible wall stands between myself and An Education. Others are quick to praise young star Carey Mulligan as Jenny, and they're certainly not wrong; she stands head and shoulders above the rest as the best part of the movie. However, the movie's story is overwhelmingly, suffocatingly predictable; it's not that the outcome is merely logical, but that the writing and direction, by Nick Hornby and Lone Scherfig, respectively, never raised my pulse in the slightest or threatened to make my heart skip a single beat. Having never been (and not likely to ever be) a sixteen-year-old girl, I was already at a distance, but none of the filmmakers make the slightest effort -- other than casting Mulligan -- to try and draw me in.
For one thing, we have Peter Sarsgaard as the supposedly dashing David, a wealthy-looking man of taste who appears at Jenny's bus stop and offers to, at the very least, drive her cello home. Later, he takes Jenny to the opera, to an auction, and eventually to London, where he shows her everything she's ever dreamed of. I've liked Sarsgaard in several movies, and I think he's a good actor, but I've always found it a little...suspicious (?) when he's asked to be suave. Something about the air of sophistication he tries to put up rubs the wrong way against his soft-spoken delivery, and it all starts to seem very artificial in a way that counteracts what the movie is trying to accomplish. Again, I'm not a sixteen-year-old-girl, but it felt so plainly obvious from every conceivable angle that David is, at the very least, a bad influence, that I can't understand why someone who is as smart as Jenny clearly is would consider listening to him. There's an exceptionally awkward scene between Jenny and David involving birthday promises and a bowl of fruit that had me squirming in my seat, on the verge of yelling at Jenny to flee the room as if I were sitting in the packed midnight of Paranormal Activity I attended and not a press screening.
Startlingly, Jenny's parents Jack (Alfred Molina) and Majorie (Cara Seymour) both seem equally naïve in the face of David's charms. Molina gives one of the better performances in the movie as a decidedly old-fashioned father set in his ways, but not a good enough performance to make me believe he'd jump at the first opportunity to chastise one of Jenny's more age-appropriate boyfriends (Matthew Beard) while still having the leniency in his attitude to allow her to go to Paris with a stranger 19 years her senior. You'd also think that even if he doesn't realize that David is smooth-talking him, Majorie would catch on in an instant. There is a scene where Jenny returns home late to find Majorie quietly washing dishes, and you think she might speak up, but she stops just short, and it's right back into the movie's tiring story.
The entire time, I sat there and wondered why the movie couldn't live up to its spirited opening title sequence and the various quiet charms of Carey Mulligan, who gives a rock-solid performance that seems to be constantly on the verge of breaking out into something better, if only the story would go in the right direction. Mulligan is also surrounded by actresses like Olivia Williams and Emma Thompson, who look like they're going to get in their jabs (Williams definitely lands a few), but are pushed aside in predictable ways, come back in predictable ways, and never amount to much. The only supporting characters in the movie of any real interest, aside from Jenny's parents, are David's friends Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike). Danny is different than David, standing outside the scenario and expressing his concern about David's actions, and Helen is a world-class ditz, played with just the right amount of emphasis by Pike.
I don't want to completely dismiss the movie. It looks nice, and there are no directorial touches from Scherfig that stood out to me as awkward or out of place. It's merely that An Education doesn't jump off the screen at me, doesn't have any stories I find myself relating to. Jenny is 16, and loves the sophisticated, adult feeling she gets as she walks the streets of Paris, dresses up in the kind of clothes Audrey Hepburn might have worn, listens to French records and smokes cigarettes, all things I have never once thought of doing. I didn't like An Education, but I admit, maybe you shouldn't take my word for it.
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