misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

An Education, a film by Lone Sherfig: the heroine's resource, the dignity of her own mind

Dear Friend and readers,

About a week ago, Izzy and I saw a powerful coming-of-age film, An Education.  The auditorium we sat in had just us and one elderly couple, but since it was a Tuesday afternoon, I put it down to the time and day. However, since then I've read two snarky, sarky reviews by British journalists basically sneering at the memoir the film adapts, Lynn Barber's story of the maturation of a teenage girl in London in the 1960s, as itself snarky and sarky and just about every bad thing you could think of (snobbish, they called it, adulating Oxford -- a no no nowadays, at least in print). Further, the blogs I've seen dis it as "disappointing," just about the cleverist put-down around. So I realize that despite the brilliant acting and fine script (with many nominations of prestige awards), from the lack of advertisementsiin the press and online  that like Ang Lee's Ride to the Devil, this film is being dumped.

Why this is I cannot say except that like Peter Bogdanovich, Barber has apparently made enemies and her films will henceforth be targets for malice sans prizes. Also much of the cast and the crew too is made up of professionals who often make the BBC or ITV mini-series of older high status books; perhaps this lark of trying to apply their superior talents to a contemporary relevant girls' book won't do and is resented. Here's a chance for the enemies of those who make it in "quality" films on TV to get back.  As Izzy says, at moments it felt like members from the casts and crews of film adaptations of 19th century classics and Austen said, hey, why not do something different today and see if the cinemas will distribute it.  When I finally get to transcribing my MLA notes, I will tell of one session where it was shown that girlhood is still erased, beneath contempt, thought not productive of power by establishment and feminist groups alike.

Izzy and I so enjoyed it, that I want at least somewhere to contradict this scuttlebut of stupidity and recommend the film to everyone, but (admittedly) especially women as to the point and riveting today.

Carey Mulligan, as Jenny, the A-level student at the opening of the film

Olivia Williams, as her much put-upon and put-down Latin teacher, coping with a class of girls not exactly engaged by their Latin texts; nonetheless, she saves her star pupil's Jenny's future

IN a nutshell, based on a memoir from the 1960s by Lynn Barber, also titled An Education (I link in a typical resentful review),  a film directed by Lone Sherfig, screenplay by Nick Hornby and produced by Amanda Posey and Finola Dwyer, we see Jenny (Carey Mulligan) learning a hard lesson in life.  Jenny is a very smart schoolgirl in a grammar school who is studying hard to get superior A levels in order to go to Oxford.  Her parents are in two minds about this, especially her working class father, Jack (Alfred Molina), and when they see her attracted to and apparently taken up for marraige by a a seemingly powerful , gentle, and well-meaning if  older man, David (Peter Sarsgard), they do nothing to stop the romance from blooming.  

The scene after Jenny loses her virginity; the film focuses on this after moment rather than the sex scene itself.  She feels grown-up is the idea -- symbols include the cigarette, lovely slip.

Alas, this Jane Eyre (alluded to a couple of times by the dialogue has caught  a much inferior Mr Rochester -- he turns out not only to be married, but an unscrupulous child-like childish man adding to his income by bullying elderly people and alluring young girls to become his mistress (until they get pregnant)  by seeming effortlessly to be able to offer them an eternally splendid life of high excitement, culture, beauty with no effort on their part but going along,  One need only be silent about his lies and ignore the shady dealing behavior she glimpses he practices with his louche partner, Danny (Dominic Cooper). 

Flat faced intense dancer is Danny

Danny's girlfriend, Helen (Rosamond Pike) is there to re-dress Jenny and teach her to be silent, compliant, sexy, and conventionally attractive, and of course go along and make herself scarce when necessary.

Jenny begins to think her studies in an allgirls school of Latin and English hard, boring, irrelevant.   She falls in with her father's dismissal of Oxford and her mother Marjorie's (Cara Seymour's) complicity>  Marjorie's remark when Jenny says she is engaged to David: do you have to marry him. This shows she has surmized the affair has become fully physical; she stays up late waiting for her daughter as a way of vicariously joining in:

Her father and mother admire this superficial or appearance of power and glamor:

Jenny dismisses and insults her apparently pathetic spinster teachers, including Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams is superb as someone who privately lives the plain worthwhile life and in school endures scenes of excessive stupidity) and a narrow hard headmistress.  Emma Thompson so perfect in the part I began to laugh and cry all at once and bang my hand on the seat next to me at her, so real was she and so mean when Jenny came for a second chance -- none of that here, my dear:

Jenny learns the hard lesson of not so.  It's following David about that leads nowhere, that is hollow and after a while exposed as dependent on tissues of lies. An important part of his charm (and a feature of women's films) is how willing he is to wait until she's ready to have sex. She doesn't want to go "all the way" until she's 17. He wants to use baby talk with her too; it is she who says, let us call each other by our real names when they finally do have intercourse.  So she feels in control.

Then Jenny makes the mistake of showing her affair off. She has already flouted it, her work is suffering, the headmistress has warned here.  Well, she is expelled, and does not take her exams, and then on the evening of their engagement party (a dinner with her parents), she discovers David has a wife by some envelopes in his car.

In the above still, now dressed in a faux adult way, Jenny is in the position of Jane Eyre after she comes back from church; Jenny and her parents have come back from David's fancy car and restaurant treat

Sally Hawkins is stunning in her role as Sarah, the long-suffering wife and brief dialogue (with a son in tow), asking Jenny condescendingly if "she's in the family way" and becoming relieved for Jenny's sake that Jenny is not "For some of the others have been."

What leads to fulfillment is independence - and that is to be gotten only by a fulfilling self-respecting profession. After Jenny attempts to persuade the headmistress to take her back and fails, she goes to Miss Stubb's apartment. Small, plain, but with things (copies of great paintings Jenny watched David and Danny scoop up dishonestly in an auction) Miss Stubbs values, the teacher's rich resource is the dignity of her own mind.  She is generous enough to forget and to forgive, to tutor Jenny so that when she comes to take her exams at the end of the year on her own, she does so well, she is accepted to Oxford, and gets her life back.  Here is Miss Stubbs looking wistfully after Jenny in the school after Jenny has treated Miss Stubbs's way of life as valueless; she is sorry for the girl:

What we see in this moment and film as a whole, is the limited choices life has to offer girl, and what these really are or mean. Your dreams can mislead you.  Here is Jenny listening to a French chanteuse on her record-player and dreaming of Paris:

To which David will take her one romantic weekend: where they fall into imitating French looks and what they feel tourists do (Eiffel  Tower, sit along embankment and snark), lay out on esplanade:

Our dreams lead us astray.  Virtue not cigarettes,

reading and hard study are the way for one can rely for fulfillment only on the stability of truth. It is a moral tale for young women.  Jenny faces up to the reality she lied too: she cannot accuse others of accepting lies when she did -- a beautiful scene occurs when her father outside her door with a cup of tea and two biscuits tells of how he discovered she had lied when she said when she and David went to Oxford C.W. Lewis had signed her Narnia book.  We are to learn to ignore the sneers of the Helens when we see how obedient Helen is to Danny in one scene and how helpless if he should try to dump her.  Would there were more of these kinds of film showing women's limited choices, the consequences of taking this or that option, the continuum of roles on offer for women.

My quarrels with the film and these are not nothing is 1) all the actresses but Thompson and Seymour are anorexic, and that includes Mulligan. Their upper arms are like sticks; their shoulders so angular it's painful to look at. 2)  We  end on Oxford where suddenly all is green, pastoral, easy; Jenny apparently herself now lies to her younger suitors; the closing still of Jenny riding on a bike next to a young man riding too reminded me of Brideshead Revisited.  This closing sop to nostalgia belies Jenny's goal, which leads to my last assertion that 3) we should have ended on Miss Stubbs at home, but I could find nary a still

Tags: 20th century, women's films, women's memoirs

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