I once wrote Steven Spielberg never creates an interesting moral dilemma that a boy in a helicopter can’t fly his way out of. I feel the same way about Lone Scherfig’s An Education, a film that repeatedly Medivacs its teenage heroine out of real complication and back to the Army Field Hospital for Conventional Wisdom. The film is the American Beauty of 2009, teasing us with a little leg of originality before pandering to its audience’s most common beliefs.
Based on the Lynn Barber memoir with a script by the English novelist Nick Hornby, An Education has breakout girl Carey Mulligan playing Jenny, a straight-A sixteen-year old with a future at Oxford. It’s 1961 England. A suave but shady businessman (Peter Sarsgaard) in a sports car picks her up one day from orchestra practice. Soon they’re having an affair. He takes her on adventures away from her drab life in Twickenshire to the high life of London and Paris. She hangs out in fashionable circles with his fellow well-to-do bon vivants (Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike).
Soon, she wonders whether she should complete her education or join the high life. The film cruises along as an amiable fantasy for about two-thirds of the way. Then it sets up its dilemma dealing with the nature of education. Is education worth it? What is the point of one generation reading The Iliad for a degree only to teach it to the next generation, if in the end it makes nobody happy? If you have the golden ticket to the high life, to an enjoyable life, why invest in the time and effort of study?
This is a virtuous personal dilemma, although not a weighty issue compared to those in, say, A Serious Man. However by turning its suitor into a villain, the film stacks the deck. To put it bluntly, Scherfig might as well have outfitted Sarsgaard in fangs. But that would have risked making it more subtle. By wiggling out of a real choice, the film devalues the education that Jenny eventually chooses. We know if she simply found a nice rich guy, she justifiably would make a different choice. And so she doesn’t choose an education based on its virtues. She does it because there’s nothing else to do.
Rather than be a brave step into brainy exploration, an education becomes the choice of brainless conformity. Harrison Ford tells a story of meeting a Hollywood executive who said he knew Tony Curtis would be a star when he first saw him as a bellhop. Ford’s tart response was that he thought he was supposed to be a bellhop. I somewhat feel that way about Mulligan. I understand the wild praise thrown at her for this performance. Yet I never really bought the twenty-three year-old as a teenager, not even a precocious one. And as far as the film’s other source of praise, Scherfig does a very solid job of evoking pre-sixties James Bond high life, but she’s not the first one to do so.
Indie film used to be about edginess and challenging established beliefs. That should be obvious to Scherfig in particular, as she has a history in Dogme films (Italian for Beginners). An Education might value its pedigree. But in the end its extremely conservative lessons (fear older men, don’t smoke, don’t get pregnant, stay in school) wouldn’t seem out of place in the Twilight series. It’s a lovely film, though one that is dishonest with its audience.