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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

An Education (2009)



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An Education is a breezy story of a charming young woman named Jenny, played by Carey Mulligan, whose performance is so good it doesn't look like a performance at all. I liked the movie because I liked her, but I can't escape the feeling that this story is a lot less than it was hoping to be.

The movie asks some questions that should be answered. It asks them quite literally: throughout the film, Jenny is asking everyone she can why an education is important. She's not merely whining about having to study. She genuinely wants to know. But no one has a satisfactory answer for her. At a key moment, she reprimands the headmistress of her school for not being able to provide one.

It is therefore inexcusable that the movie fails to provide one. Well, it does, but it's not a very satisfactory answer. I can't explain why without spoiling the film, but suffice it to say that its answer only covers a corner case of human experience. Jenny's personal story might easily have turned out differently, in which case she'd still be looking for an answer.

The movie does a good job portraying British society in the early sixties, particularly in its treatment of women, but then doesn't have a whole lot to say about it. Consider a decision made by the headmistress of Jenny's school. It is a key decision, the culmination of everything the film has said about the workings of society. Now ask yourself, would the movie be saying anything substantially different if she'd made the opposite choice? I would argue no. The choice matters to the main character, but not particularly to the film as a whole. A moment this critical shouldn't feel so irrelevant.

But where the movie fails on a thematic level, it succeeds on a character level. The movie is uncommonly smart in ways that many are not. Consider a key scene where her father talks to her through her bedroom door. So much is said in so few words. I liked how the movie refused to paint characters or decisions in black and white. It sees the complexities in human nature, but in a way that still ascribes responsibility to people for their actions.

And then there is that great performance by Mulligan, which is so effortless. She earned an Oscar nomination for her work in this film, which is somewhat surprising; the performances that tend to garner awards recognition tend to be the ones that look like hard work. Then again, how could she be ignored? She is so likable in this movie and completely believable in every moment of it.