Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Getting "An Education"

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There's something intoxicating about "An Education." I've thought for days about how to approach it to do a full length review, as I really think it's a film that deserves one for it works on many levels of aesthetic, generic, and cultural interrogation to create a story that I feel is almost pitch perfect in every note. I'm still kind of at a loss as to exactly WHAT it is about Danish director Lone Scherfig's film hit me, or why, but this is the best you're going to get out of me right now.

The early 1960s are all of a sudden en vogue again. Perhaps we have reached a point in our culture where it's ripe to look back at this time and interrogate it for what it meant, how we portrayed it, and ultimately criticize that perception to gain some kind of larger understanding. On a political level, we can loosely tie Obama's election to Kennedy's (both polarizing figures, both with very liberal agendas) trying to execute "new" ideas in a heated political climate (for Obama, the invisible threat of terrorism, for Kennedy, the tangible yet chilled threat of Communism). The 1960s are regularly signaled as a harbinger of massive cultural change, breaking like a fissure from the "straight-laced" 50s society. Of course, historical studies will readily reveal that the 50s were cracking long before Kennedy's election, the 60s were going to be radical long before MLK stepped up to the bat, and the entertainment industry was scrutinizing as much as it was propagating.

But in things like AMC's unbelievable show "Mad Men," we are looking at this fragile period of our culture under new lenses, trying to understand how things were changing, what the social and political tensions were, and figuring out what society was "all about." Matthew Weiner's television series is - I think, at least - an unprecedented examination of complex masculinity trying to stay afloat in a confused society, a story of a man erecting his own prison without his knowledge, a great American tragedy that transplants simple stories of men and women trying to get by into a larger national context of change and tragedy.

"An Education," then, is partly the British counterpart to Mad Men. Were it extrapolated to 13 hours over three seasons, I've no doubt Scherfig and writer Nick Hornby could develop their idiosyncratic and complex cast into a thoroughly breathtaking decimation of cultural anxieties. As a singular film - and a relatively short one - "An Education" packs a surprising amount of depth and perception. Its seemingly classist story manages to juggle feminism, politics, high society, morality, generational conflicts, and a coming of age story into a glorious melting pot of low-key melodrama.

Its story of a 16-year old girl who rebels against her parents and their notions of what is "good" for her by dating a 30-something playboy and falling for the high society he represents is a classic tale of seduction and misery, of coming-of-age and of personal redemption. Writer Nick Hornby takes his mold and infuses it with stunning insight, mostly coming from protagonist Jenny's parents - played by Cara Seymour and Alfred Molina, the latter of whom gives his most deft and accomplished performance in years. He is the parent who wants to live vicariously through his daughter, albeit at a distance - he measures his successes through hers while he tries to control every aspect of his family's life. The scenes in their house are staged as a quaint battleground of manners and ideologies, where flat compositions are made flatter by soft blue lighting.

And a note on Carey Mulligan, who stars as Jenny: this young, 23-year old actress is the film's entire lynchpin, the reason it works sublimely. She manages to always appear as if walking a balance beam, playing a youth who sees the flaws of the system her elders have constructed while also impersonating a society woman clearly out of her element. Her carefully orchestrated composure, which leads to the inevitable cracks in the facade, are all handled with superb maturity. As I watched "An Education" I noticed several times where she wears her hair in exact mimicry of Audrey Hepburn in "Breakfast at Tiffany's," a 1961 film. Then I noticed she had similar sunglasses, jewelry, dresses. Beyond that, her character is a Holly Golightly, a creature of flight who doesn't know where she's flying; a rule-breaker too confused to fully break the rules; an injured creature undone by the woes of the world around her, whose greatest error is to love and live. These immaculate touches from Scherfig and Hornby help propel Ms. Mulligan's performance, as if she were providing a calculated rebuttal to Hepburn's iconic turn.

Of course, there's also David (Peter Sarsgaard), whose smarm and charm are seemingly inexhaustible. "An Education" fittingly never gives us much to like about David; Jenny's attraction is always about what he *symbolizes* instead of what he *is*. That he can take her to night clubs, to art auctions, on weekend trips to Oxford and Paris are what is most important, not his job or the actual content of these outings (which are at best questionable). To juxtapose the scenes in Jenny's home and school, DP John de Borman films these scenes with vivid orange-based light and lots of contrast. There's a jagged, impromptu feel to how many of the scenes are edited, as opposed to the careful and claustrophobic composition and editing of Jenny's home.

There is real emotion at the heart of "An Education," and real wit at its soul. It is a rare delicacy of a film where all the elements seem to coalesce like the bubbly from a glass of champagne. It glides like a slice of pop entertainment, but there's a deeper and more menacing drive to the film. It relies heavily on melodrama, and it's not hard to see the formulas the film's working on (yes, it was based on a memoir, but that's beside the point). This is a movie that is so squarely about progression and social limitations, about the delusion of social impossibility, about the perils of defining what is "good" for citizens and subscribing roles.

But why I love it so is because it's not jamming this down our throats - that's precisely why I hate so many melodramas. Yes, there's a fair bit of "An Education" that's pretty obvious. There's also a lot that's pretty intelligent. The scenes and characters are crafted in a way that they're always working on multiple levels to provide a probing look into one idea of what middle-class British society was "all about" in 1961.

The rebels are the ones who make the change possible, and it's in their spirit "An Education" feels dedicated, for it is a film about a quiet rebel interrogating the world around her. For us in 2009 looking at this film as a critique and evaluation of its cultural setting, I can only say: bring on the interrogation.

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