Wednesday, May 26, 2010

An Education on the Ensemble Class

In trying to keep up with DVD promises, I've given An Education (2009) a second look. First thing I noticed the second time through was a vaguely wary expression on Carey Mulligan's face the very first time you see her. Before she has anything to be worried about.

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.
To close I'd just like to share this Graham-related dialogue exchange that I love but had completely forgotten about. Jenny's dad has already fallen for David's con artist charm, however age inappropriate he may be, and takes the opportunity to disparage Jenny's young friend.
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.

Graham might become a famous author for all you know!

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.


cal roth said...

I've been very vocal about the amazement I had while seeing this performance, but, come on, it's never too much: I Love Her, I Love Her and I Love Her. And it's not a case of likable character, because Jenny can be very annoying. It's a case of a marvelous performance, a debut for the ages.

adelutza said...

I don't know why I love this film so much. When you hold a magnifier and look closely, you discover holes. But there are scenes in it that are pure delight and I could watch them over and over again.


adelutza -- for me that's every scene that uses the foursome i mentioned. they really have amazing chemistry and it's in theses scenes where Scherfig seems to have the most distance or control of the tone. Or maybe i just think they made some off choices with the parents.

cal -- i'm not saying it's too much. i think she's terrific in the film. But it does feel like the director held back from criticizing the character. anyway... there is one scene that i don't quite think Mulligan pulls over. It's her switcheroo once she decides to ignore that her boyfriend is a criminal. I wanted to love that scene. love the lead up to it and almost every performance bit of hers but that scene. it just doesn't quite convince me.

Burning Reels said...

From a Brits (not sure if that makes much difference or not) point of view, I was very disappointed by the film.

Disjointed, horrible score and meek script.

Thankfully Mulligan, Molina and Hawkins made it watchable and entertaining in parts.

Comparisons to Julie Christie's Darling are ludicrous - p*sses all over this average fare.

I'll shush now:)

Anonymous said...

It was my favourite 2009 film. I know it's not perfect and that last year came up with more important movies, but I just can't help falling in love with the characaters/performances, mood and visuals Lone Scherfig developed. And I just keep teeling myslef the end is on par with the rest of the film: Jenny can't accept that a big mistake will define her future: she just keep her head above those "minor incidents".

Nel said...

@ Burning Reels - it must be a Brit thing, the movie evoked more of a meh response from me. Anyway Pike was my revelation and my fave in that movie.

Ishmael said...

The biggest problem I had with this film was that Jenny never for one second comes across as a 16 year old schoolgirl. She clearly a woman in her 20s throughout.
And this makes it impossible for me to sympathise with her - something the film clearly wants me to do.

But yes, the supporting cast is quite decent. Horrendously overrated film in general, though.

Andrew K. said...

Seeing that this is my favourite film of the last year I'm good and biased, but I'm glad to see other things getting attention (personally LOVED Duffy's "Smoke Without A Fire" even if it was a little TOO on the nose). Matthew Bear's Graham was so sympathetic, and I love that bit of conversation you use at the end there. Two things I love, how misguided Mr. Mellor is and Carey's reactions, she's just so expressive with her face.

In reference to the scene you mention in the comments about Jenny ignoring that her boyfriend's a thief, I'm a little on your side but the reason I believe it is because I know that Jenny doesn't believe it either...but as Sarsgaard says "there would be no fun", and she likes fun.

Excellent writeup.

Daniel said...

I don't think Scherfig is to blame for the film's obsession with Mulligan. I mean, Hornsby barely gave Mulligan anything to work with (yes, I'd stand by that), and the supporting roles are utterly devoid of any character whatsoever. However all these actors, (Mulligan, Pike, Sarsgaard, Williams, and the argument can be made for Molina, Seymour, and Thompson as well... heck even Cooper, Bear, and Hawkins) are able to craft rich, layered characters out of nothing.

Talented as these actors are, when everyone in a film like this is so good, especially when the roles as written aren't a fraction of what ends up on the screen, I feel like credit has to be given to the director. I never thought Scherfig was obsessed with Mulligan at all, rather I felt like she was working closely with all the actors, resisting a script that seemed to be pushing her to do the opposite.

Mat said...

I pretty much fell in love with both character and actress during the course of this movie. It's an amazing performance, as was Pike's. I don't understand the love I've seen for Molina, as he's in a very typical role, but I suppose there aren't many ways youd could play it. I still can't quite decide exactly what it was about the characters. I wanted Jenny to stay with David, despite the obvious flaws with that idea.

In a way, it reminds me of Punch-Drunk Love in the way I instantly fell for both of the leads and wanted them to stay together despite Barry's flaws in that movie. I think it's what you said about the movie zipping along. I usually love it when films do that. It makes a nice contrast to all the slow, heavy films we tend to see these days.

The Jaded Armchair Reviewer said...

I just watched this again last night, timely coincidence. From a storytelling standpoint it's not perfect (the purpose of the car scene with David, Jenny and her folks was pivotal yet completely glossed over in buildup and that montage of how Jenny continues her education in the end always felt like the director gave up and the screenwriter didn't want us to see the protagonist earn her happy ending by struggling for it) and the editing is seriously haphazard and inconsistent. And yet, it's still a movie that I can keep going back to over and over again as well as a movie that I enjoy sharing the experience of viewing with others.

I actually dumped Julie Christie in Billy Liar for Carey Mulligan in An Education as my on-screen girlfriend. Haha.

On and another movie prospect I think you missed out on is "What if Jenny Had Stayed?" when Sally Hawkins tells her to "no, you stay here" instead of walking away.

Truly a movie whose universe I wouldn't mind having more of.

Bookmarking this. :)

verninino said...

I don't think it's just a brit thing to feel this was a mediocrity. I reckon I'm the odd-man out but none of the characters captivated me-- they (and the film) lacked sufficient verve and zest. Well, except perhaps the set and costume design. Not so much that I appreciated them much-- I have no sense of fashion, I was just bored enough by the characters that I kept probing the rooms.

Emma Thompson came the closest to holding my attention with her understatedly steadfast morality (I kept expecting her to flex her ham-chops and was always pleasantly surprised when she didn't) and so almost did Hawkins. They may have succeeded if the script had veered more subtly towards them (to borrow Nathaniel's use of the Leigh lens).

Or I wish they had shown more of Danny & Helen, perhaps deftly shifting perspective their way from Jenny's. It could have been much more interesting looking over their shoulders as both Jenny and Jack become smitten.

Indeed I'd prefer watching any of Nathaniel's alternatives.

It just seemed to work much too hard to delicately-place-Mulligan-on-yon-pedestal-only-to-snatch-the-rug-from-under-it. But maybe it was trying to EVOKE a 60's retro rather than EXTENDING one.

Throughout Saargard felt like a mediocre Peter Pan to me, so during the bleak reveal I just sort of smirked at the predictable comeuppance. For me, it might have been a better move if it had just ended there. Very likely my guilt would have rescinded my schadenfreude. Especially since I had just suffered through Mona Lisa Smile's Hollywood ending.

Since I was an 8-year-old misogynist with a crush on Audrey Hepburn, I've loved undergoing the transformation from hating the ingenue's guts to loving her to pieces. Recalling An Education makes me crave Happy-Go-Lucky or Amelie or some Merchant Ivory drivel. I need a leading lady to remove this lump from my heart.

Slayton said...

I think this film is a bit more insightful than it is often given credit for - there is tremendous emotional complexity in scenes such as the 'banana' one, the one where Jenny takes her top off for David, or the scene where she tries to leave them but David goads her back into the group, complexity that Scherfig wisely lets speak for itself.

What you said about other films and other worlds being opened up with different characters is absolutely how I felt - esp. in the case of Williams, Pike and Hawkins. The most haunting moment of Pike's performance and arc came at the end when Jenny tells Helen and Danny about David's deceit. If I recall the exchange went something like:

Helen: "Oh, don't worry! When I found out-"
Danny: "Shh."

Helen comes and stands behind Danny as he continues to speak to Jenny, she looks at him lovingly but also with this air of mourning and regret. That 30 seconds in that scene open up Helen's entire world and show you that perhaps, she was once in Jenny's shoes - that she's the Jenny that wasn't able to escape so soon.

aclp said...

The more I remember this film, the less I like it (pretty much like Lost series finale. I have to stop thinking about it otherwise I'll bring myself to hate it with a passion, forget about the good moments the show had and forever hate myself for wasting six years of my life with it)

But back to subjetc: I never thought this movie was so brilliant and deep as others have.

And Ishmael, I agree with you.Jenny never, once, came off as a sixteen year old girl. God, the pain and awkwardness of being a sixteen year old girl. Being in my late twenties, I look back at being sixteen and now I have a good perspective on how silly, naive, raw, vulnerable I was, how little I knew, how immature and unprepared I was.

Jenny doesnt. She never shows the insecurity, the vulnerability, the "not-knowing", the social awkwardness that most sixteen year olds have. I this has nothing to do with Carey Mulligan being six or seven years older than Jenny (Ellen Page was also six years older than Juno and that didn't bother me. Who is sixteen anyway? Not even Emma Watson is sixteen anymore).

It had everything to do with the way she was written. And with the fact that the movie willingly chose to overlook her flaws and sweep it under the rug in order for us to sympathise with her. The movie was way too much in love with the character therefore traying to portray us as a poor little victim (which she was to a degree) but this is precisely the fact that makes it so difficult to do so- the movie is so in love with her that they show her as this "semi-godess" and not just an ordinary-though very clever and driven- lower-middle class english girl in the early sixties.

The movie overlooks her flaws, her mistakes, the active part she had in the whole ordeal. And I didnt like the ending, that whole Oxford epilogue. I thought it didnt really add much and wasnt necessary.

aclp said...

I never really quite understood people who thought Mulligan's was the best performance of the decade.

Really? Didn't these people see Heath Ledger in Brokeback Moutain? AND in The Dark Knight?

Helen Mirren in The Queen? Forrest Whitaker? Didn't they see The Lives of Others? Penelope in Volver? Capote? Milk?

Javier Bardem in well.....anything? Bardem has a shapshifter-like quality to his acting, he really transforms himself completly, physically, from one character to another.

In a wheelchair in Carne Tremula, fat, bold, pale and depressed in Los Lunes al Sol, cliched latin lover in Vicky Cristina (god, I hate that movie), The Sea Inside, Befor Night Falls....

Was Carey's really the best??? People are so hysterical and over the top sometimes.

Oh, and I think she looks like nothing like Audrey. Nobody does.

Kyle M. said...

Nice review, though I think think I liked the film a tad more than you did. I can see the need for Jenny to be more "complicated," or have a bit more thrown at her to grapple with. But at the same time, there would have been the easy complaints of Jenny acting too adult for her age if the film went too far in that direction. Some of that already surfaced prior when some critics said that Carey Mulligan looked too old to play a teenager, and I disagreed with that too. In the commentary track, Lone Scherfig gave the impression that she wanted to make the light and accessible film that she did. I didn't think she aimed for accessing her subject matter that deeply. She aimed for an impressionistic look at a budding and susceptible teenaged girl that took the wrong path and had to claw her way back to the right one.

Also, I'm not sure what the continued fascination with Rosamund Pike's all about. She was okay and all, but her character wasn't anything exceptional or Oscar-worthy, and nothing that I'd want to pursue in a film of her own. I know that she's a great actress, and it's not easy at all to play the dumv blonde, but still. Now Sally Hawkins's character is a different story. A film about Sarah's long-running compliance and compromising in David's string of affairs while keeping her home life intact could have made a fascinating plot thread for a film of its own. I totally get the Mike Leigh vibe with that scene (wonder why? he he!). If Ms. Stubbs had been a bit more dynamic of a character, I wouldn't have minded seeing more of her in the film. Emma Thompson was great in her dressing downs of Jenny. She pierced to the heart of those scenes like nobody's business.

Now I need to pop in this DVD and watch it all over again!

JT said...

Loved AN EDUCATION!!! Carey Mulligan should have won the Oscar.

James T said...

I love that you never forget, even if you are not always on time.

Nice piece and I especially like the last paragraph.

By the way, I want to remind you of the last "say what" contest.

Josh said...

Olivia Williams deserved a nom.