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November 02nd 2009 print

Ben-Peter Terpstra

An Education at the movies

Peter Sarsgaard’s role as the emotional rapist is uncomfortably believable. He is the thinking person’s Brad Pitt. A poster boy with deep acting skills.

Too early? By rights, An Education (BBC Films) shouldn’t be called a classic, but it sure looks like one. It’s easy on the eyes, for one thing. At times, early 1960s London looks like a watercolor, with her rainy days, her dreamy schoolgirls, and her wet footpaths. How many movies – today at least – look stylish? What’s more, the camera doesn’t have a problem with beautiful people smoking cigarettes, and looking better for it. (Quick call the censors!)

London. Oxford. Paris. Location wise, place names tend to be blessings or curses, at the movies. But somehow they work here without becoming clichés, because we see them through the eyes of a 16-year-old private schoolgirl. They’re skylines with souls.  Cultural magnets attracting young dreamers.

An Education is based on the memoirs of Lynn Barber. The movie’s central character is Jenny (played convincingly enough by 22-year-old Carey Mulligan). Her character shouts innocence and roars naivety. We see her, funnily enough, talking existentialism, singing French with the help of Juliette Gréco’s records – remember them? –and showing us all how clever she is at school. Her Achilles’ heel is an older man. Latin is just a pain, like balancing books on your head.

The movie’s conservative lesson? Never jump into a sports car with a stranger. David (Peter Sarsgaard), who is an emotional rapist, and probably twice her age, offers Jenny a lift on a rainy London day. She accepts and the rest is both tragedy and a mystery. It’s tragedy because what grows out of one free ride is not free. Mystery – early on at least – stems from the fact that Jenny’s parents appear to fall in love with the sly David before she does.

David (known as Simon in the memoir) is a sleazy player who just happens to be Jewish. But BBC Films – surprisingly enough – wants you to know that he isn’t a Jewish sleaze, and reminds audiences in a patronising way that there were anti-Semitics all across middleclass London like, say, Jenny’s conservative Christian headmistress. Or her father.

Is this a bit much? Probably. Think strained. While anti-Semitism did (and still) does exist in England, so too do anti-Christian beliefs, a taboo topic, often hidden by BBC Films.

Distractions aside, the movie largely succeeds visually – and morally. Danish director Lone Scherfig isn’t afraid to hide us from relationship realities. For there are consequences for our actions. More so for young lovers.

And yes, there are predators out there with plans to groom pretty girls. Sometimes they look dapper. Sometimes they’re Oxford graduates (or they’re pretending to be). And sometimes, they seduce whole families with their charms. Scherfig runs to realism, not away from it, and in an era of child sexualisation this film presents us with a good dose of reality.

Interesting too are the actors in full swing. As David, Sarsgaard’s role as the emotional rapist is uncomfortably believable. He is the thinking person’s Brad Pitt. A poster boy with deep acting skills. Watch him groom his prey. Cringe as he creeps his way into the lives of Jenny’s parents. Gasp as he justifies stealing an old lady’s map, because someone else is going to anyway, says the trust bandit. To question him is middleclass. To submit to him is honourable. Think toxic relationship.   

Still, David is not an island, and is surrounded by co-conspirators, and dumb-as-sheep enablers, unwilling participants in a potentially tragic story. Returning to Jenny’s parents, they appear to see only two futures for their daughter. (A place at Oxford. Or a marriage to an Oxbridge graduate.) And David’s partying friends too – both worldly adults – have their selfish plans for Jenny’s life.

“So where are the role models?” one is likely to ask. Olivia Williams as Miss Stubbs, the old-fashioned teacher teaches (by example). She teaches how to love the teenager sinner and not the teenage sin: "You can do anything, Jenny, you’re clever and pretty. Is your boyfriend interested in the clever Jenny?" She knows.

Bourgeois-looking Twickenham, London, possess a certain charm for parents, my guess, but to Jenny it is a cage. Posh London or Paris is the place to be. The grass is always greener, over there. And an elderly man is worth throwing your education away for.

Or is he? While Jenny is not a perfect victim, she’s a sympathetic character, who is victimized. Experience awkwardly shapes but never defines the young mistake maker. So never jump into a sports car with a flashy stranger.