Many people talk about how Up in the Air was so evocative of the time it was released, and while I do agree with that as endlessly as the next person, I apply that description much more towards An Education. Of course it's set a whole fifty years in the past, and in London as well, but for somebody from a lower middle-class family struggling to make it to and through college, this always rang rather true for me. Come to think of it, I doubt there's a film that puts this real period in everyone's life more fitfully and eloquently than this. Last year's The Kids Are All Right comes rather close, but it focuses far more on the family aspect of becoming an adult, not to mention the summery tone to it.
An Education is the story of Jenny Mellow, a dedicated student who's on the road to apply and be accepted into Oxford University. Out of the rain comes the charming and intelligent David Goldman, who wins Jenny over with class and ease. He introduces her to his upper-class friend Danny and his girlfriend Helen, somebody whose road through life is more than a little reminiscent of where Jenny is headed. Jenny's schoolwork takes a backseat as she's immersed and distracted by the world that David and his friends live in. She begins to question what it is that she wanted in the first place, as we all do at some point.
When you're introduced into a new set of friends, you start to lose sight of who you are as a person and become more of a member of the group. I never thought of it as quite so tragic a thing as it is painted here, but when the individual being lost is so beautiful and kind, that does offer something you want to hold onto. At the halfway point of this film, I had myself wondering whether or not she would convert completely into one of these people. It certainly would have been a much bolder move, and it would have made the film into something completely different. In some ways I cling onto that idea of what this film could have been, and then a retreat into the happiness and warmth of what actually happens.
The unfolding of David and Danny actually being con men makes the repeat viewing experience of the film all the more foreboding. The scary thing about the first half of the film is how intimidating Peter Sarsgaard is as David. He pulls the wool over Jenny's eyes, and whenever it seems like he's charming her, he is simply ridiculing her former way of life in hopes of ensnaring a young companion. He's a wolf, precarious in his moves and generally deplorable in his methods. That's not to say that people who do what he does day to day, conning people out of certain goods, are similarly deplorable. Their glorious way of life is only sustainable through that deceit and underhanded dealing. In a world like this, it can be seen as a necessary evil.
The way that Jenny goes along with the wrongdoing is really the way that we all wish we could live. We all envision a version of ourselves who lives free of such moral inhibitions and does what they like, but the world we live in just doesn't accommodate that. Then as the final act looms forward, we get an idea of the sweet life Jenny has lived with David finally going sour. We get an idea of the true emotional connections in Jenny's life, including her father, played wonderfully by the exquisite Alfred Molina. However the most vital connection in her life may be her favorite teacher, played by Olivia Williams. If she keeps taking on roles as endearing and wonderful as she has been, she'll be well on track for an Oscar one day, or should.
The entire film has you thinking about the numerous aspects of what is happening and what will be happening. Jenny is one of the most intelligent characters written in a while, portrayed wonderfully by Carey Mulligan, because she's not completely infallible in her actions. She makes mistakes, occasionally doesn't realize it, but is always quick to explain her actions. That's what is so great about this film is that all the characters have their flaws and make mistakes. It's those mistakes that define their characters and don't lead the story. Films should be driven by their characters and not their plots. You don't just fall into circumstances by accident, but by actions of others. Ultimately the ending of the film is optimistic, making a point that focus and time can be put to use doing anything that you choose. A simple message, but one that never seemed less cliche or contrived. The ending is a little wishy-washy, but it's more than forgivable.