An Education

Friday, 2 September 2011

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Galit asked me to review the film, An Education, based on Lynn Barber's memoir. Of course, I said yes. I saw this film a while ago, so I re-watched it yesterday. I have to say that while it flitted over my mind when I first saw it, this time, I was more aware of certain themes running throughout the film. It's a pleasant enough film: beautifully shot, well-acted, a nice neat storyline and fantastic costumes. But it's a familiar story, there's nothing new here. Jenny, a young girl, is on the eve of adolescence. She is seduced by David, an older man, and must decide between the promise of education at Oxford University and the lure of romance and easy thrills.

The 1960s setting helps us believe in Jenny's naivete and her parents' gullibility, and yet, I did find myself feeling increasingly uncomfortable as the film progressed. There were latent subtexts to An Education which didn't quite let me enjoy the easy froth and outward beauty of the film. For one thing, I found it really creepy that in one of their first intimate moments, David wants Jenny to use baby talk and calls her 'Minnie'. His infantilising of sex was just uncomfortable to watch, especially within the context of an older man with a much younger teenage girl. I know this is supposed to be a 'light' film, but it didn't feel like that during such scenes.

And then there is the palpable anti-Semitism of some of the characters, which was personally quite infuriating. David is Jewish, and while ostensibly, this is not the main focus of the film, there are numerous references to this fact that left me feeling strange. And then it hit me: maybe this is actually an important theme in the film. In fact, there are two moments in the film that stayed with me which are explicitly tied to this theme, and they come in the form of dialogue spoken by Jenny and her father. I'm para-phrasing here from memory, so hopefully this is accurate:

Wandering Jew. When Jenny brings home her first teenage boyfriend, her father calls him a Wandering Jew as a joke - a term that comes to haunt him when David enters the picture. Although this is a slight comment in the film, it did leave me thinking.

The myth of the Wandering Jew is tied to the narrative of wandering in exile, waiting to return to a 'homeland'. This aptly summarises David's character. He wanders through life, he coasts from woman to woman, he has no 'home', no place to be himself. His cons, stealing and cheating are a form of evasion. Not even his wife and children can anchor him. Arguably, it's his wandering that draws Jenny to him. The idea of wandering aimlessly and having random fun is so deeply exotic when you're really young, until you learn that it's really just another form of escaping life.

For Jenny, though, it is more complicated. As a young woman in the 1960s, her choices are more limited: she must decide between the anchor of education and the anchor of marriage. Socially, she cannot live David's form of escape, and by the end of the film, it is debatable whether she wants it anymore. She grows up a bit and realises that life is not something that you can skim over without any difficulty.

It's not enough to educate us anymore, you've got to tell us why. Jenny utters these words to her school Principal. I thought they were quite good (I hope I'm remembering them correctly, but you get the gist of it). 'Why' is a question I've gotten a million times about my own education. In the first few years of my PhD, a constant question I got from people I had just met was 'why': Why was I doing a PhD? Why was I studying something as 'useless' as English (sigh)? And what kind of job could I possibly get with it? There came a certain point when I simply stopped answering, and I suppose my silence was taken as a sign of the impracticality of my decisions. But is wasn't, it was the silence of assurance. I knew there was a reason for my education beyond tangible 'proof'. At the beginning of the film, Jenny searches for 'proof' of education's worth, and at the end, this proof becomes unnecessary. But I'm not exactly sure what replaces it as the film ends with a question mark. Still, I like to picture a happy ending for Jenny in Oxford, where she 'wanders' a different, non-evasive, path.

Has anyone seen An Education? If so, what did you think of it?


miss alix said...

it's been awhile since i saw An Education but i do remember enjoying it. it's easy to be taken away by all the pretty atmosphere and not get in touch with the story though. it does seem so strange that a girl would still be so entranced by a man who is also so creepy. this makes me want to see it again. i thought it was good, for at least trying to tap in to some emotional stream despite being a simple story.

odessa said...

i loved 'an education'! i especially coudn't get enough of the gorgeous cinematography and jenny's lovely dresses! it also introduced me to carey mulligan and she's become one of my favorites.

Leah said...

It's really refreshing to see a review where someone actually discusses the themes of a film, rather than just the awesome 60s costumes (I may have been guilty of this at the time...).
I know just what you mean about it, I think. Like the whole way through we're patted on the head and told 'It's ok, it was a different era, girls could marry strange middle-aged men straight out of school. It's not weird, ok?', and yet we still feel that it was weird, and especially weird that no one was mentioning how weird it was.

If that makes sense.

Wishcandy said...

I appreciate your in depth and honest response to the film. I admit the first time I watched the film, I was blown away by the fashion and cinematography. But in the second watch I noticed more of the themes.

It made me quite uncomfortable to watch the growing romance between Jenny and David. He's a creepy older man, with nothing to offer her but flash. Which isn't always as good as it seems. It also made me feel bad for her teenage love interest, who gets skimmed over for the "wiser" and "more experienced" David.

Also I had hoped that Jenny would pick up certain cues from David's friends.

Joy said...

really great review here but i haven't seen it since it was first out so i don't remember much apart from remembering that i really enjoyed it and thought everything looked magical. i did do some sort of fashion in film thing with 'an education' at the end of may but nothing as in depth as this. great post hila!

julie said...

I have not seen this film but i can see how one would get carried away with the beautiful scenes (as seen in the photos)It sounds like there is a lot more to it than meets the eye initially.
and sigh, if i could afford it, i would study my whole life.

have a good weekend hila! x

elliottwithlove said...

An Education! I watched it last year and loved it, but since then haven't gotten the chance to watch it again. (Alas!) But I would like to, especially after reading your entry and your opinions on the movie.

Enia Is (Almost) Here said...

Yeah, I'm with you. It was beautiful but there were things that rubbed me the wrong way. Interesting idea re the 'wandering' theme... Now that I look back that really makes sense. And of course I completely understand: proof isn't necessary when you are comfortable in the why of what you are doing, but man do they want proof out of you! Or maybe this is just the experience of those of us with PhDs under our belt :)

Rebeccak said...

I'm glad you brought up these issues. I remember seeing stills from this film around the blog-o-sphere, and desperately wanting to see it. When I finally did, it gave me an icky feeling too. I watched it on my lap top n the train, fleeing Wagga Wagga's flooding last year, so that definitely added to the strangeness. I put the anti-semitic undertones down to it being a 'period piece', but didn't really register it was set in the '60s! But then, maybe showing us this continued British antisemitism is quite telling (did you see the british news about shutting down the Israeli Philharmonic's Proms after anti-Israel protests yesterday?).

I haven't read the book it is based on - does it provide any insight?

Rambling Tart said...

The "silence of assurance" - I love that phrase so much, Hila. :-) That is the phase I'm in now. I've been explaining and justifying myself for months and it's enough. I'm so happy in my choice, in my life, and I don't need the approval of others. I did see this movie and felt uncomfortable in the same bits as you. But it came at a good juncture for me, helped me not be afraid of venturing forth into the unknown, knowing that no matter what happens I will learn, I will grow, and I will be stronger on the other side. No regrets.

naomemandeflores said...

I think An Education is a very nice and beautifully shot movie, but I felt very uncomfortable with the ending. Seems like she only chose the path of "education" after realizing he wasn't going to stay with her forever. A little sad, I suppose...

Camila Faria

La Blonde Blafarde said...

I watched it last year and I liked it very much, but I think that, after your review of some points of the film, I'll be watching it again asap.

P.S.: Studying English, or any other language instead, is cool! :)

chocolatine said...

I saw this movie a couple years ago. I didn't think that it ended ambiguously at all. For me, it was about making awful mistakes in first relationships, the person to hang your hopes on, out of aimlessness and hopelessness, all of it leading up to the saving grace of a new phase in life to absolve you from your own misjudgments; I'm thinking about that part, near the end of the film, where the main character tells us about how a boy she meets in college asks her to go to Paris, and she says that she'd love to go, "as if I'd never been".

Grace said...

i saw - and loved this movie a couple years ago. it left me feeling a bit sad, but i appreciated it because i felt that it was very honest and real. agreed with feeling uncomfortable when david calls jenny minnie.. creepy.

separately though, i LOVED the fashions!

Caitlin Rose said...

I really enjoyed the film, but I agree that there were moments that were very unsettling. I also thought it was interesting that they did keep some themes less obvious, it seemed realistic? Especially in this age I find that prejudices are usually more difficult to find, but often just as present. Also, I really liked that jenny did grow up. I've seen this type of film before too, and I was happy that they made jenny an active participant in her surroundings. She was lured, but it was as if she understood that she was being lured into it? I don't know if that makes sense, but i just found her smarter than other characters before. ok, and now its friday so have a lovely weekend.

Belle Armed said...

I loved it, with all my heart. Such an inspiration when it comes to style.

Becca said...

I saw it the first time when it came out and I was very unsure, because it was not was I was expecting. I revisited it this winter and the second time around, I really enjoyed it. As you say in this lovely review, the messages of the film just sunk in better during the second viewing. I think it's a beautiful film and I was happy to read this post. I have been reading your film reviews on this blog for a long time, and I enjoy your film choices and writing so much. If you review something I haven't seen I always watch it right away.

Ella said...

fantastic review, and i agree whole heartedly with everything you've said!

Felix Curds said...

hila, hey! wowzers, i've got a lot of catching up to do on your blog. i've never seen 'an education' though my friend does rave about it like there's no tomorrow. it does look really beautiful and carrie mulligan is stunning! i think that about education as well, especially since it's nearly time to choose our uni subjects and i really want to do something in the arts. i love art and want to pursue a career in it but of course people say things such as "why art? why not something (useful) like medicine". basically it's just gotten to the point where i just say "why not?" hahaha:)

Lyndall said...

I liked the film visually, but I wasn't really a fan of the story. Although for me, I think it was more because the situation annoyed me (I thought David was a jerk and I didn't see any appeal to him at all), so that's more my problem than a problem with the film I suppose!

I read the book a few months after I saw the film and it was quite interesting to see the sweet little character played by Carey Mulligan grow up into a chain-smoking, jaded older lady! In her book, the time spend with David was only in about a chapter and the rest of it talked about her life with her children and husband, which was actually more interesting to me than the film.

And oh, how I sympathise about the questioning of education. It's funny the number of people who find it perfectly reasonable to ask rude questions like 'why are you bothering to do that?' and 'will you ever be able to get a real job?'. Sigh!

Galit said...

Thank you my friend for your fine review!!
I didn't find it as an 'easy' film, probably an easy film in disguise (and the stylish way in which it is filmed cover up and mask many concepts which are disturbing or even ugly).
There were so many themes that cannot 'just' be a part of a good script but a meaningful ideas that left me thinking a long time after I finished watching it.
As addition to what you already wrote, I found the way Art was presented to be interesting. We are used to think of art as pure, intelligent and decent. When Jenny first comes to terms with her new friends art business she is very impressed, soon we find that it is definitely not a genuine interest in the arts. The way education is presented kept me pondering for a long time. What is the roll of school? what is the role of education? why do we need to be educated? what IS 'educated'??
It is such an interesting and beautiful film but at the same time so distressing. I enjoyed reading your thoughts about it.

Rebekka Seale said...

I love this review. I want to re-watch the film now too.

blyve said...

Great review. I loved it when I watched the first time - mostly carried away by the beautiful pictures and the atmosphere - but I also had an underlying weird feeling towards some parts - will watch it again now - with a clearer focus on the plot - I m keen to see how I perceive it this time. So, just thank you for reminding me to watch it again :-)

jodeska said...

This has half been on my list for a while now. It does look gorgeous, but it also looks very INTENSE. Which I'm not very good at handling. Loved your take on it.

Tracey said...

I'm still yet to see 'An Education' ... there was something about the older man, young girl perspective that didn't have me rushing out to see it.

I read with interest your views, and so now I'm curious to watch it sooner rather than later.

PS. Sorry for being so slack in replying to your email ... I've been a shockingly bad communicator of late. xx

Marinka said...

You did a nice review of the movie..It makes me want to see it again.

I don't like it either when people question someone's education just because they don't find it useful..It think it's great that the universities offer so much varieties of field of studies, that everyone can find what he loves there. I wish it was the same in Universities in Africa. Unfortunately they are too many stereotypes about what is a good degree and what is not here. As a result everyone gets almost the same diploma , and it's a shame.

Anyway I hope you are doing well on your Ph.D

tywo said...

I loved it. I remember watching it with Brenton. Such a beautiful movie that made me think of the impact of school, and society in my life.

It was especially interesting because Brenton wasn't going to school at the moment, and my parents weren't going to accept the fact that he was taking some time off.

You know, it makes me we get an education because we are really interested, or for the fear of being classified in a particular group?


pierre said...

picture 5, pentax best camera ever !!

Sasha said...

I've always wondered what this film was about. I've also always been sort of intent on watching it at some point, though it sounds like a couple viewings might be in order to get the full effect.

Jen said...

Hi Hila,

I also have a lot of catching up to do on your blog. I love your film reviews, and was inspired to watch 'Cracks' recently, which has interesting similarities in the use of film style for visual seduction, while slowly revealing the more unappealing side of human nature. So much to say about this film! I'll keep it short :)

I came to watch An Education some time ago, without any knowledge of the story or the visual feast that awaited. So I watched with fresh eyes, and came away feeling completely disturbed by David's character and his treatment of Jenny and everyone else (fine acting!). His reassurances to the very last confirmed the serious nature of his emotional issues that really could have damaged a less than intelligent Jenny (hence the importance of the theme of education?). And his friend seemed equally dangerous. So many moments of discomfort for me; the scenes of carefree travelling always felt laboured by an unknown dread. So a second viewing might be on the cards, to see if I can separate the unease for long enough to enjoy some of the scenery. I think the tragedy of what could have happened to Jenny and other less aware families of that era, had there been a slightly different outcome, has been presented rather cleverly.

And for those who have not seen the film, the still photogaphs can be wickedly deceiving. It is a little creeper of a film with a delicately potent story. I would love to read the book now, to see if I have the same reaction.

(And Education? Yes, I love how often people ask me why I am studying by choice, at 35, in my 'spare time', as I have a 'real job', etc. It makes me smile now - they don't really need to know why, and probably wouldn't understand if I tried to explain).

gracia said...

Yes, I too found the Minnie baby talk creepy. Quite the wallop when watching a 'light' film on DVD. And I like how you mention the allure of the wanderer when young "until you learn that it's really just another form of escaping life." That's exactly it!

Having seen this film only the once, I am keen to revisit.

Olga said...

I haven't seen this film, unfortunately. Nor have I read the book. I also keep musing on the subject of why education is important, because I am a perpetual student. I think that any book you have read furthers your personal development.

Sally said...

i'm surprised so many above call this a "light" film with hidden darkness. I came into it well expecting tragedy and downfall - and I guess I was only really shocked at her parents' passiveness in regards to her relationship. I think creepy hints within the relationship, anti-semitism, cracks at the education system, etc. were all meant to be there and underlie the seeming idealism we spread thickly over that decade now.

hila said...

wow guys, I'm blown away by the depth of the comments for this post. I'm going to sit down and read them properly on the weekend (and enjoy reading every word). But in the meantime, I wanted to say thanks! I'm relieved that I'm not the only one who felt uncomfortable with certain aspects of this film, and was left with some heavy questions ...

See Hear Say said...

i still have so many blog reading to catch up and i haven't read this one properly (i will this afternoon when i get home on my computer!) but i just want to say that i LOVE this movie, one of my favourites!!

ps have you ever seen lars and the real girl? would you do a review post on that movie? :D

Marla said...

Thank you so much for pointing out the part with the baby talk. I remember i found it quite strange when i watched the movie the first time, but watching it a second time it was still weird. And also, i also noticed all the "antisemitic" talk - i just thought it was an instrument to reflect a certain vibe of that time, but i found your explanation very true.

hila said...

So I finally had a chance to read all your comments properly here. I wish I had time today to answer each and every one of them in detail, but I did want to respond to a few quickly ...

rebeccak: yes, I heard about the shutting down of the Israeli Philharmonic's Proms after anti-Israel protests. I just feel sick when this kind of stuff happens, there is so much latent anti-semitism and simplification of the conflict in Israel, which does a disservice to everyone. Sigh, but this is not really a problem that can be solved anytime soon.

I haven't read the book either, so I'm afraid I can't help there.

Galit: "I didn't find it as an 'easy' film, probably an easy film in disguise (and the stylish way in which it is filmed cover up and mask many concepts which are disturbing or even ugly)."

yep, I totally agree, you're spot on. And I agree about your point on the theme of art too - I found Jenny's interest to be quite superficial, she was trying to show off all the time. But I guess she is quite young, so you can't really judge her for that.

jen: what a great analysis of the film you've written here, particularly this point: "the scenes of carefree travelling always felt laboured by an unknown dread". That's exactly how I felt watching these scenes. They were overly cheesy and romantic, and you knew how they would end.

see hear say/laura: no, I haven't seen it - I shall try to do a review of it sometime soon :)

Thanks everyone, such awesome comments, I would love to chat with you all.

Anonymous said...

I'm rather late to this but I thoroughly enjoyed the review and the comments. I saw this film and initially didn't 'get' it, and thus thought I was a bit dim. It was only after reading interviews with Lynn Barber that I realised the film had more depth than I gave it credit for and came to appreciate the character of Jenny -I do recommend listening to Lynn Barber on Desert Island Discs(BBC).

hila said...

never too late to join in the conversation!