A month or two ago, a friend of mine scoffed at me when I called An Education one of my favorite movies. An Education had always seemed untouchable to me, but then I'd never had a a reason to do anything but love it—it had been smothered with accolades practically from the instant it hit the screen. Now, suddenly, I was confronted with the idea that the emperor had no clothes, that An Education was actually nothing but a sacred cow.
At first it was hard to consider. An Education is one of those movies, like Little Miss Sunshine or maybe Thumbsucker, that hits a sweet spot in critical sentiment: it has Integrity and a Message, but it's straightforward enough that it never becomes pretentious; it's a showpiece for performances by brilliant actors, but none of them is so overbearing that it becomes a prestige picture; it centers around a coming-of-age story, but it treats it sensitively enough that it never becomes a teen movie. It's set in London, but it both keeps Big Ben out of frame and writes off England as a cultural desert, so it never turns into Anglophile pornography; it's set in the early 60s, but it gives us Ravel instead of the Beatles, so it doesn't turn into an exercise in Retro.
Still, those are all basically negative qualifiers: we're awarding it for mistakes avoided rather than successes achieved. I think anybody who cares about movies would agree that a really excellent film has to do more than be tasteful, which is all that avoiding mistakes really means in this context. An Education does do a lot of things right in the eyes of the New York Times Arts pages, but that doesn't make a movie good—it's almost cliché to say that there are plenty of clever, well-composed movies that are (maybe consequently) also shallow and uninteresting, and many of these movies win Oscars. Midnight in Paris is a good example.
An Education isn't one of those movies either, though. To its bedrock of good technique and good taste it adds a layer of humanity that's actually engaging and personal: a bleak story about a, bright, impressionable suburban girl seduced by a vacillating con man, virtuoso performances by Peter Sarsgaard and Alfred Molina, and the debut of Carey Mulligan, who was contextually identified as the next Meryl Streep at the Oscars the year the movie came out. Not only that, but its skewering of the English bourgeoisie's short-sightedness and hypocrisy—embodied in Alfred Molina's character, our heroine's father, who rants endlessly about money and doesn't even seem to try to connect to his talented daughter—gives it a pointed social position that puts it in relation to Wilde and Shaw. It's not average glossy middlebrow fare.
Even so, neither is The King's Speech, another socially-conscious period picture set in England, which shows off several fantastic performances and performs a very nuanced analysis of the psychology and politics of George VI's speech impediment. I hated The King's Speech; I thought it was a glib, cloying exercise in heartstring-tugging and the only good thing that came out of it was the end of Colin Firth's quixotic search for an Oscar. But I can't deny that it has a lot in common with An Education, as far as those first two categories are concerned: it's well within the boundaries of middlebrow good taste, and it's a success from a purely formal point of view: it's definitely well-made and definitely well-acted. All of this is to say that it took some deep digging to discover exactly what I like about An Education. It must have performed some kind of alchemy to turn from another bland New York Times movie into something really powerful and topical. I've been thinking this over, as near as I can identify, the irreducible moments come in the two scenes when Carey Mulligan's character is alone in her headmistress's office.
Up to the first of these scenes, the movie has been a sharp, well-acted drama about a bright, naïve girl and her older boyfriend as they navigate the art world, family politics and the perils of the Winter-Spring romance; it's kept from acknowledging a lot of tension beyond that within Jenny and David's relationship, and it's kept any social criticism implicit within Jenny's father's buffoonish rants about money. After the scene is over, the movie has made its social position crystal-clear and acknowledged the tension and impending disaster not only in the microcosm of Jenny's romance with David but also in the macrocosm of her socioeconomic life, and its set up its sequel, in which the alluded-to social repression becomes the center of the drama.
The hero of An Education, Jenny Meller, is a gifted girl from Twickenham who cleaves pretty closely to the archetype of the bright provincial who dreams of getting out of the suburbs and going someplace sophisticated, someplace where people will understand her; in her case, at least at first, this place is Oxford. She's a perfect student in all her classes except Latin, a stuffy, antiquated subject, where she struggles just as she does with the stuffiness of her family and suburban Greater London in general.
The critical change in her life comes when, walking out of Youth Orchestra rehearsal and avoiding her gawky boyfriend Graeme, she meets a businessman named David. David comes to represent everything Jenny wants, every reason she has to get out of the suburbs: he's handsome and witty, he can hold a conversation about Ravel or the Pre-Raphaelites, and his money, apparently plentiful, carries an aura of vague danger and corruption that Jenny finds exciting once she gets over her initial misgivings. They fall in love, although it's obvious from the beginning that Jenny loves him more as the symbol of a lifestyle than as a person, and it becomes obvious that David, who grows more neurotic and inconsistent as the relationship progresses, sees Jenny as his savior. Each of them is a kind of commodity to the other. Regardless of this, though, David is soon talking about taking Jenny to Paris. Paris is another important commodity for Jenny; she listens to Juliette Gréco on the floor of her bedroom and peppers her speech with French interjections, and when she meets David she tells with him, an idealism that's so childish it's almost embarrassing for us to listen to, that she's going to move to Paris, wear black and talk to people who know "lots about lots."
Naturally, she can't keep her mouth shut about the impending trip, and soon the whole school knows about it, including her long-suffering teacher and therefore the headmistress, who calls Jenny into her office.
Jenny goes to Paris with David, agrees to marry him, and leaves school. At home, she has a conversation with her parents in which they blankly tell her that marriage is as good as Oxford as far as they're concerned. Jenny clearly has more doubts about the whole thing than they do—for her, it's a question of whether marriage or university is a better path to fulfillment, and to them they're both simply ways to provide for oneself.
Unfortunately, after it's revealed that he's already married, David vanishes, and Jenny learns that she's not even the first girl he's seduced and then abandoned, just as she's not even the first girl who's told the headmistress she's leaving school for an older man. This sense of repetition, of inhabiting a role rather than being an individual in the Romantic sense, comes up in the second of the two scenes with the headmistress, in which the schoolmarm curtly refuses Jenny readmission and throws her out in the cold. As long as Jenny is in the school's good graces, she's given every chance to reform; once she's gone she might as well be a stranger. Her disillusioned attack on the system's one-sided model of education now seems silly; it doesn't need to provide a reason for educating its students, because it has a monopoly. The students are the ones who have to justify themselves.
And justify herself is exactly what Jenny does. In a montage that covers the next few months, with the help of her English teacher, she studies for her A-levels, passes them, and goes to Oxford. The last we hear of her, in a narration that plays over footage of her, plaid-skirted, riding a bike across a leafy Gothic campus, is that she went on to tell the boys she went out with in college ("and they really were boys") that she would love to go to Paris, "like I'd never been."
It's this that makes An Education a great movie, as far as I'm concerned. Alongside a host of movies like The King's Speech and Midnight in Paris, movies that deliver trite, palliative humanism and celebrate a vaguely defined idea of individual freedom, An Education does exactly the opposite: it shows us how we lack freedom, how the human element is inextricable from wider cultural trends. It's a bleak, pessimistic, almost Orwellian film: Jenny's final voiceover is tinged with fatigue and regret as she tells us that she learned to love the institution she had tried so hard to escape, although it never even tried to provide satisfactory answers to her questions.
The stealthy critique this movie levels against modern life may have been too stealthy, because most critics ignored it and gave An Education a comfortable place within that year's well-meaning Sundance movies. The critique, though, is no less sharp for that, and it's what keeps the movie from slipping into "socially-conscious" territory—that is, dealing with the problems of women or young people or the middle class as if they're isolated "issues" unconnected to larger cultural currents. Beneath its veneer of retro romance, An Education is a perfectly pitched movie about what it's like to begin your life disillusioned; in an industry full of movies about becoming illusioned, so to speak, it's the kind of movie we need.