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British Cinema, Films by women

An Education (UK 2009)

A star is born? Carey Mulligan as Jenny.

I’m not sure that I should write about An Education as my critical faculties more or less went out of the window after a few minutes of watching Carey Mulligan’s portrayal of a 16/17 year-old schoolgirl in the suburban London of the early 1960s. A great deal has already been said about her performance and I can only concur. Her impact in this film can only be compared to Julie Christie’s in Billy Liar or, more recently, Reese Witherspoon in Election or Ellen Page in Juno.

For the uninitiated, Carey Mulligan was 22 when she started work on An Education after supporting roles in UK TV drama productions, including classic serial adaptations of Dickens and Austen. Ironically, she and Rosamund Pike – her co-star in An Education – both played as sisters to Kiera Knightley in the recent Pride and Prejudice film (UK 2005). I think Ms Knightley might be looking over her shoulder now (and she has the chance in Never Let Me Go, currently filming with Knightley and Mulligan in leading roles). But perhaps we should be wary of conferring star status quite so quickly. Also in the cast list of An Education is Olivia Williams, one of several bright and gifted young British actors who went to Hollywood with high hopes and despite some very good performances (e.g. in Rushmore (US 1999)) never quite made it in the big league.

Carey Mulligan's first appearance in 2005 as Kitty Bennett in Pride and Prejudice

Anyway, enough gushing. If you are outside the UK, you might need a bit of background to this film which several commentators have suggested will be on Nomination Lists for Awards in the New Year. That is, if you didn’t already know that Carey Mulligan was pronounced as the ‘It Girl’ of this year’s Sundance Festival where An Education was a big hit. The narrative is based on a short memoir by the journalist Lynn Barber that first appeared in the literary magazine Granta (and has subsequently been expanded and published by Penguin – if you don’t mind spoilers, Lynn Barber explains the whole story in the Guardian). The adaptation took several years to be teased into shape by Nick Hornby, the well-known novelist whose other film work includes adaptations of his own novels, Fever Pitch, High Fidelity and About a Boy – all in their own terms successful small films. But Hornby has generally been seen as a ‘new man’, ‘young Dad’ kind of writer. Would he be able to write a convincing script about a bright schoolgirl in an earlier era? Hiring a woman to direct must have seemed a good idea, but Lone Scherfig as a Dane of a similar age possibly faced the same problems as Hornby. Although she has worked in the UK for some time, as far as I know, Scherfig is more familiar with working-class Glaswegians than the lower middle class in Twickenham (she created the characters for Andrea Arnold’s Red Road). But I guess that the story is universal and since Barber is such a good writer, the raw material was probably all there. Nevertheless, hats off to Hornby and Scherfig who provide the support/direction for Mulligan’s performance.

An Education is a clever title for an unusual ‘coming of age’ story. Jenny is a bright girl and seemingly destined for a place at Oxford. But this is 1961, that very strange and quite precise period in the UK before the explosion of creativity after 1963. The country was virtually out of austerity but hadn’t yet been given the signal to get started on the real social revolution. Life was pleasant, but not exciting. That’s not to say that the country hadn’t changed since 1945. If you were an intelligent working-class or lower middle class teenager, for the first time you now did have the option, as a grammar school boy or girl, of working hard and getting free higher education (read and weep if you are a current student). The numbers who were able to take advantage were small but significant.

Jenny has a chance encounter with an older man who seduces her into his very upmarket roadster (a Bristol, no less) and then cons Jenny’s parents into letting him take her to concerts, dinners and more. The parents in the film are played by Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour and they do good jobs in what are very difficult roles. I think the writing of the parental roles is nearly always the weakest part of these stories. The narrative always obliges us to focus on the exciting possibilities of youth – never on the feelings of parents who have struggled through the war and austerity and now see their unthinking offspring breaking free from the boredom of suburbia. There’s a different kind of film to be made about that.

There are several important incidents in the film that pin down the period and which need a little explanation. ‘Popping over’ to Paris was still a very exotic thing to do in 1961. You had to be either very rich or up to no good or a modern languages student on an exchange or a school trip. Jenny has a romantic weekend in Paris at the high point of the French New Wave – which she has been experiencing on trips to arthouse cinemas in London. The obverse of this is the film’s accurate and now very shocking references to the blatant racism/colour bar in London and its exploitation by the notorious Peter Rachman, who would later emerge as a key figure in the Profumo Affair in 1963. This reference points towards Scandal (UK 1989) the undervalued Michael Caton-Jones film that features Joanne Whalley and Bridget Fonda as ‘goodtime girls’ Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies. There are moments in Jenny’s seduction into the world of conmen, racketeers and high living (especially those with Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike) that are reminiscent of Scandal – the costumes in particular are a very good indicator of period.

Mandy Rice-Davies and Christine Keeler at the time when the Profumo Affair broke.

The Profumo Affair was in many ways the moment of catharsis in British social life. It saw the collapse of the Tory Cabinet and paved the way for the Labour victory in 1964 and all the social legislation that followed. Jenny’s story would not have quite the same impact six or seven years later during the ‘Swingin Sixties’ period in London (roughly 1965-9). Having said that, Darling (UK 1965) with Julie Christie would make an interesting comparison with An Education. On the whole though, the later 1960s films feature working-class girls from the North coming to London and discovering an exciting life.

Back to An Education, I don’t think it is a perfect film. I think the relatively restricted budget shows in continuity errors and an unconvincing rain scene for the crucial first meeting (an almost surreal summer rainstorm perhaps). The final sequence seems truncated and oddly unsatisfying and I think that there are tonal shifts elsewhere that are unsettling. This is inevitable I think given the mix of youth picture, romance, comedy and social commentary. To my taste, Emma Thompson as Jenny’s headteacher is just too much and it seems so unfair to constrain the beautiful Olivia Williams in a role as a repressed English teacher. I understand why the producers want to use star names in small roles to attract audiences, but for me the film would work better with less well-known actors in these roles. One other possible irritation is the music. The original recordings are well chosen: Billy Fury, Floyd Cramer, Brenda Lee (‘Sweet Nothings’ – terrific), Mel Tormé (inspired), Ray Charles, Percy Faith and Juliette Greco. The modern stuff by Beth Rowley and Duffy is fine, but it sounds ‘retro’ – again it seems to be a nod towards younger audiences? The score is by Paul Englishby who is highly regarded, but the score didn’t work for me.

You can hear some of the music on the official website and in the (very good) trailer below with Floyd Cramer and Ray Charles in the background.

In this American trailer you get some of the score and a Beth Rowley song:

Here’s Carey Mulligan in a Toronto Film Festival interview with some interesting comments on her role:

I hope that this film gets used in A Level classes as it promises to open up interesting debates about the changing representations of young women and about a crucial period of British social history. It also offers many links to British Cinema’s other attempts to represent the 1960s. An analysis of Carey Mulligan’s rapid rise also looks possible and an extensive fansite is already available.

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