It's as if she knows that this is not a post about how great she is!
One of the chief and actually insightful digs at the movie, from certain unconvinced parties, is that director Lone Scherfig is so enamored of Mulligan's Jenny (and yes there's plenty to be enamored of) that she passes up numerous opportunities to complicate the movie. Our relationship to the youthful arrogance of the protagonist really does need a tougher investigation. Jenny really does need to be told. [Has she been told? Tell her. Oh snap!] This is the reason I love every tiny bitter morsel from Emma Thompson as the stern headmistress. More please.
But it wasn't just Scherfig that had trouble looking away from Mulligan's star-is-born turn. How else to explain the curious little attention the film received outside of its Actress and Best Picture bids. The film has amazing costume work, smart art direction and terrific original songs. Regarding this last bit, there's zero excuse for the Academy's music branch to pass up "You've Got Me Wrapped Around Your Little Finger".
The song even gets a showcase scene and is intertwined with the narrative, something they're actually supposed to be looking for when they vote. The characters even sing it in the car while driving.
But the best thing about the film is for sure the ensemble play. Scherfig makes some fine shot sequence choices to accentuate the interplay between her "clever" foursome of lovers: Jenny & David (Carey Mulligan & Peter Sarsgaard) and the highly flavorful duo of Danny & Helen (Dominic Cooper & Rosamund Pike). One early scene of the foursome in a bar offers audiences the rare opportunity to watch four actors acting simultaneously. I watched this scene four times in a row to look at each performance and they're all fully engaged. Oh the joy of medium shots!
Only after we're already made some observations about their group dynamic does the more generic cross cutting, shot / reverse shot pattern, take over (you know the pattern, it's the way 99% of movies film every single conversatzzzzzzz zzz zzz). I love how the scene begins with Helen holding bitchy court -- she theorizes that college girls might be born ugly -- but as soon as she's turned her attention's Jenny's way, "books?", Scherfig zeroes in and the blocking changes. The two men begin to flank Jenny, gradually pushing Helen right out of the frame. Scherfig sees what's happening to the group dynamic (fresh meat!) and illustrates accordingly.
One of the most interesting textural bits in the movie is how nearly every character -- not just Jenny -- swoons for any sort of flattering attention; They're all hungry flowers, leaning towards sunlight or water. Dominic Cooper excepted, as he seems very self contained.
I've already expressed my love for Pike with a Supporting Actress nomination but there are other magical things happening within the ensemble, too. Unfortunately the acting isn't always consistent. Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour, for example, both have smart moments as Jenny's eagerly gullible parents, but they swing a little too broadly at other times.
I don't know if it's that stinging late film appearance by Sally Hawkins in a pivotal role but the film makes me think of a Mike Leigh movie.
What?!? Yes, that's a bizarre reference point. Hear me out.
The character work in An Education doesn't have the depth or discipline of Leigh's standard six months worth of improv and rehearsals, and the movie absolutely doesn't have the same high art tone or deep insights. I know that. An Education just zips merrily along, charging through even its darkest moments without considering them too carefully. It's paced and styled for the multiplex, even if it never fully crossed over with mainstream audiences. But I think of Mike Leigh because his movies by their very design always feel a bit ephemeral. You're hyper aware that had his camera swung to the left or right, or left that scene earlier to follow an exiting character, a completely separate and equally interesting movie would be waiting for you on the other side.
An Education is strong enough during its best moments to make me believe or at least fantasize that there's a few movies just off to either side or behind it, should the writers, actors, and director have decided to go another way with it. On second viewing this is the order in which I'd like to see those movies.
- The Miseducation of Helen, a biopic, in which Rosamund Pike takes center stage. Was she always this dim and devilish? How hard does she have to work to keep Danny's (Cooper) attentions and keep herself swathed in the fur and finery he provides? (I'm guessing there's been a procession of Danny types.)
- The Art of the Steal a prequel, in which Danny (Cooper) and David (Sarsgaard) begin working together. An Education never looks closely at this relationship but if you stop to think about it for just a minute, it sure needs looking at. What is the power balance really like? Does it seesaw back and forth?
- The Prime of Miss Stubbs in which we follow this entire school year from the exhausted well meaning perspective of Jenny's teacher (Olivia Williams) and the headmistress (Emma Thompson) becomes the defacto secondary lead.
- Educating Graham in which we follow awkward Graham (the sympathetic Matthew Beard) as he grows into a fine writer and learns that Jenny wasn't everything. There are plenty of interesting girls in college and they're less pretentious about it.
Jack, Jenny's Father: Better than that young man you brought home for tea.
Marjorie, her mother: [thinks the comparison is unfair] David's a lot older than Graham.
Jack: Graham could live to be 200 years old and you'll never see him swanning around with famous authors.
Jenny: Graham might become a famous author for all you know!
Jack: Becoming one isn't the same as knowing one. That shows you're well connected.
Some people's fathers...
I love this tiny crumb of a suggestion that Jenny does like the age appropriate but unsophisticated Graham. She's just not into him in that way. That said she doesn't seem to enjoy the ribbing he gets from both her parents and friends. Perhaps she knows somewhere deep inside that she's not that much more extraordinary than him... she's just a little further along in her Education.