An Education

The more I think about it, the more I really didn’t like the ending of An Education.

Right up until the last 15 minutes I was enjoying the heck out of it. Carey Mulligan was rightly singled out at the Academy Awards for a fantastic performance as a smart, pretty Oxford-bound teen who takes up with a much older man (Peter Saarsgard). Saarsgard, although not as noted critically, does a great job: he convincingly charms both the characters in the film and us, and then turns it around without ever seeming forced or inconsistent. Screenwriter Nick Hornby, whose recent prose writing hasn’t engaged me as much as his earlier novels, really seems to benefit from having source material and a specific time period and a proper young person to work with, and his trademark wit and humanity is in full effect.

So in the end David turns out to be a cad, no surprise, and it looks like Jenny has terminally screwed up her chance to go to Oxford. And then things get fixed and she goes after all.

Part of what bothers me about the ending is the suddenness of it; it’s a mad dash that actually has the failure of imagination to include the liberal arts version of a training montage. (See Jenny read! See Jenny get frustrated! See Jenny buckle down and keep reading!)

Part of what bothers me is that the film posits a binary universe, Oxford or David, and then with its final breath it tries to reposition Oxford as a better, wiser third option and not a capitulation to her parents’ values. As true as that may be, it’s nonetheless awkwardly done.

But what bothers me the most, I think, is the lack of consequences for the characters. Saarsgard flees from the fallout of his actions but you don’t realize that at the same time he is fleeing the whole movie; he’s never on-screen again and is only chastened out of earshot by his friends’ snubbery and his wife’s resigned disgust. Jenny–who has some great, crackling moments in the second act where she lets loose with the arrogance of the hyper-intelligent teen, unwilling to spare the feelings of anyone around her in service to her own naive entitlement–has the objects of her scorn falling over themselves to regain her approval and help her out of the hole she’s dug, and while she’s certainly worthy of a second chance I wanted to see her work a bit harder for it. Only Emma Thompson–because you can always count on Emma Thompson to be awesome–toes the line and holds Jenny to task, but unfortunately her character’s an embittered, punitive racist and the scold lacks moral weight. Ultimately the only person who seems to walk out of the film with a proper price paid for lessons learned is Jenny’s father, played by Alfred Molina. His comeuppance is commensurate with his flaws, but Molina plays him as such a likably earnest, if unimaginative man that you can’t help wanting to see him properly back on his feet come the end. The filmmakers tragically miss an opportunity, both literal and metaphoric, to give him a mollifying hug at the end of a closed-door conversation.

Overall An Education is still worth seeing, but it’s not the home run I was hoping for.

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