Friday, November 20, 2009

An Education

Is it possible to hate a movie while simultaneously loving the lead character and performer? After watching An Education, I think my answer might be a resounding "Yes!"

Okay, my initial gut reaction is that the film is fairly obvious and not entirely subtle with the only real suspense coming from the wait to see what the deal is with Peter Sargaard's David -- when will he finally reveal himself?

At the same time, I am at a bit of a loss for words in writing about lead actress Carey Mulligan. The mix of vulnerability, wit, and sass -- a very English mix in my mind -- recalled Emily Lloyd and I can think of no higher compliment to pay a young British actress. And if Lone Scherfig's film is not quite the expert blend of drama, camp, humour, and sadness that 1987's Wish You Were Here was, the film's lead performer is surely as memorable as Emily Lloyd was as Linda.

There are moments where Miss Mulligan so completely owns the character that I was a bit stunned. While the film is based on a memoir -- presumably true, right? -- the screenplay felt a little too pat, a little too easy.

Still, the way that Jenny expresses her eagerness without seeming too eager, her intellect(when it suits her), and her sexuality in a natural and unforced manner reveals for the filmgoer one of the most fully developed female characters in a film in quite some time.

So, while the scene of Jenny in her plain frock entering a nightclub feels a bit too obvious -- I wanted to shout: "We get it! She's a simple, teen girl out of her element!" -- Carey Mulligan is so natural that a viewer simply sits there falling in love with the performance and the character despite the filmmakers pounding us over the head with reminders of what we already clearly understand.

I could watch 95-minutes of Miss Mulligan reacting to dialogue, it's as simple as that.

While the character of David is a "serviceable villain" who serves a purpose in the plot, we still know nothing about his motivations.

[SPOILERS BEGIN]

Why did he propose to Jenny if he was married? His wife's bit of dialogue implies that David had done this sort of thing before, so clearly he wasn't going to leave his wife this time? Why go to so much trouble if sex was not the only thing he was after?

As the normally reliable Sarsgaard plays the role, David ends up seeming a bit mentally ill as clearly his "scheme" of seducing the girl in the high life didn't have much purpose.

Or, if it did, the filmmakers didn't spend enough time in showing us what the point was.

And, it's not enough for Jenny to get fed up with school so we've got to see her storm out of school in the middle of the day carrying her books under her arm?

As soon as Jenny visited her teacher for assistance in getting back into school, I correctly predicted that a "learning" montage was sure to follow -- complete with scenes of different seasons to let us know time had passed!

And it's not enough that she gets a letter from Oxford but she conveniently gets it at the breakfast table in a perfectly framed moment with her father and mother present.

Still, all that may be, but Miss Mulligan's reaction shots are so good in those same obvious moments that all is forgiven; it's okay that the screenplay is a hammer to our temples, telegraphing filmic moments with all the subtlety of a Brit Ollie Stone, if the result yields something as glowing as Mulligan's face reacting to her father read the acceptance letter from Oxford offscreen.

[END OF SPOILERS]

A mess of a film that teeters on the brink of greatness, spinning on the axis of a wonderfully unaffected performance from Carey Mulligan.

Maybe a second viewing on DVD will change my mind?

If it seems like I didn't enjoy the film -- that my patience was not rewarded plot-wise -- I did enjoy the central performance to such an extent that I would gladly give up another 95-minutes of my film-viewing life.