The aims of Education: Doubtful minds in changing times

Strong acting, especially by the lead actress Carey Mulligan, and strong stylistic choices by director Lone Scherfig make An Education stand out among the numerous 60s throwbacks.

By Andreas Nahas

One of the more surprising trends of the past year has been the revival of the ’60s throughout popular culture. A countless number of Woodstock retrospectives, a string of remastered ’60s rock classics, and, of course, Mad Men, have saturated the market with ’60s nostalgia. But of all the ’60s revivalists, it is filmmakers who have tapped into the underlying social transformations that defined a decade and a generation. While plenty of these films have come from established Hollywood directors, indies have caught on, too. It is in this climate of revival that newcomer Lone Scherfig gives us An Education, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and even nabbed an Audience Award.

The film centers on Jenny, an Oxford-bound teenager from a quiet suburb of London. It opens with a portrait of her life, which has been strictly confined to schoolwork by her parents. One day she is offered a ride home by a charming and wealthy stranger named David. Jenny sees David again shortly after and, soon enough, he sweeps her away to concerts, auctions, and a new life that she had only dreamed of. It is apparent that Jenny is on a track which can only lead to a choice between her education and the excitement of her newfound life with David.

An Education is the first English language film by Danish director Lone Scherfig, and it does not disappoint. Scherfig has a way of manipulating space within the frame to perfectly match the intricacy of the situation evolving around Jenny. Many shots are divided up by objects like mirrors, car windows, and beams which highlight the depth and complexity of crucial scenes. In contrast, shots in her quaint suburb, cozy home, or worn boarding school are lucid, with a clarity that emphasizes Jenny’s character.

Credit has to be given to all of the behind-the-scenes work supporting the excellent direction. The wardrobe choices are superb—even the cars are absolutely perfect—and the location selection is insular enough to give us a sharp focus of Jenny’s life. At no point does the film break the captivating illusion of its setting.

Due credit has to be given to the cast, as well. Alfred Molina is great as always, as Jenny’s protective but caring father. Emma Thompson plays the boarding school director, finding the right note with limited screen time. Peter Sarsgaard (Jarhead, Garden State) always maintains that aura which says, “There’s just something wrong about David.” Jenny is in every scene of the movie, from beginning to end. This would be a fair amount of pressure for any actor, but Carey Mulligan plays Jenny well throughout the film, displaying an impressive range.

Acting and direction aside, the film derives its strength from Jenny and the concentrated focus on her life. Her relationship with David and her increasing detachment from her goals highlight the transformative time about to arrive both for her suburb and the world. But the film rarely visits the lives of others, and certainly makes no effort to show the audience the changing times. It is Jenny who is changing, and through her growth the film glimpses a generation defined by choice, experimentation and, of course, the attendant consequences.