Lynn Barber, a British newspaper columnist, wrote her autobiographical memoirs earlier this year. Before they were published, filming was complete on Lone Sherfig’s film adaptation. Nick Hornby, the author of the novels High Fidelity, About A Boy and Fever Pitch—all of which have been turned into successful films—has adapted the book at the same time as he was writing his new novel Juliet, Naked. Unfortunately, multi-tasking doesn’t appear to be his forte: An Education is an occasionally witty but mostly irritating film that tries to balance the tightrope between drama and comedy, but unfortunately for the most part falls headlong into the latter part of that equation, trying too hard for obvious laughs rather than creating well-developed characters.
Jenny, a doe-eyed 16-year-old schoolgirl, is seduced by David, played perfectly by Peter Sarsgaard, a conniving but suave man twice her age, who compulsively lies—about almost anything, it seems—to get her into bed. But far from being apprehensive about his proposition, Jenny uses it as an opportunity to show him off to her classmates—and, for that matter, her teachers and headmistress. Putting on hold her plans to read English at Oxford, she goes on romantic sojourns to European capitals and generally flaunts her newly-acquired debonair man about town. She conspicuously smokes Gauloises, and taunts her friends with plans to live a rarefied, cultured life in Paris, “speaking French all the time and watching lots of French films.” David gets along very well with her father, and finds it disturbingly easy to convince her parents of his suitability for their daughter—in fact, Barber, now a cantankerous sexagenarian nearing retirement, has vociferously blamed her very elderly parents for very nearly ruining her life.
The would-be bachelor extraordinaire takes Jenny on expensive soirées—concerts, dinners and day trips to the countryside—but beneath all the come-ons, faux high-society aspirations and professions of ‘true’ love lies a deeply damaged, conflicted man. Sarsgaard plays him with unnerving conviction but, again due to Hornby’s insistence on infusing the film with a gratuitous, blunt comic edge, has to contend with silly, interruptive gags and outright implausible lines of dialogue. Hornby includes both dreamlike, starry-eyed interludes and moments of tense drama but goes a bit far when he also tries to cram in outsized comedy. There are magnificent instances when drama, humour and romance collide fantastically, and, conversely, moments when the absolute goofiness of certain scenes—telegraphed by the over-the-top score that accompanies the opening titles—is annoyingly overbearing.
The sublimely beautiful 24-year-old actress Carey Mulligan, in her first major role in a feature film, is just not quite right for the part of Jenny. Mulligan plays the character with an all-too-knowing edge—she imbues Jenny with verve and jouissance entirely unbecoming a character of such a young age. Her Jenny is worldly, experienced and not at all the naïve waif that one suspects Barber would like to think she once was. Her accent, while not out-of-place, is annoyingly modern; the story, set in early-’60s London, calls for a slightly less contemporary, more stiff-upper-lip cadence. The supporting cast, happily, is terrific: Emma Thompson (Stranger Than Fiction, Angels in America) is well-cast as Jenny’s headmistress, and Rosamund Pike (Die Another Day) is brilliant in the role of Helen, David’s dim-witted wannabe socialite friend. Cara Seymour (The Savages, Birth) and Alfred Molina are superb as Jenny’s parents, newly-minted members of the upper-middle-class adjusting to their newfound ordinariness. Interestingly, this is not yet the swinging ’60s: the film is set in a London still coming to terms with its deep-seated repression, in an England that has not yet adjusted the bearings of its moral compass.
Danish filmmaker Lone Sherfig’s best known previous films, Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself and the Dogme95 film Italian for Beginners, deal with vaguely similar thematic terrain, but An Education lacks the nuanced performances of those previous films—largely, sadly, because of Hornby’s muddled script. The film endlessly panders to an audience of middle-aged women, with certain crudely out-of-place jokes and a number of scenes that beg to be described as “lovely” or “delightful”. Paul Englishby’s pompous, overly emotive score doesn’t help much either. For all its faults, though, it does get some things right: there are picture postcard moments of cinematic beauty—particularly in Paris and around the more affluent areas of London—and many of the performances are top-notch. It’s just a shame that Hornby’s deflated, uninspired script has all the subtlety of a brick thrown through a plate glass window, and not much more intelligence than Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears and Miss Teen South Carolina combined.