Thursday, January 21, 2010

An Education: He Has a Tree Growing on His Chest

Last night I saw my first movie of 2010: An Education!

I have to say, I was much more excited going into the theatre than I was coming out of it, but my opinion has been tempered somewhat after reading the excerpt from Lynn Barber's memoir of the title, on which this movie was based. There is something very different about the tone of the movie and the tone of the memoir, which probably accounts for the difference in reception and believability.

Anyway, as for the movie itself: it is beautiful, at least aesthetically. Carey Mulligan (Jenny) is pretty in a very believable sort of way, in that she could very well exist in someone's classroom and be called the cute or pretty one, but subtly, so that the full weight of this prettiness would only reveal itself slowly. Her school uniform was a little Harry Potter-esque, but her clothes once she begins dating David are gorgeous and unique. Of course the flowered dress from the poster is beautiful, as is this red-and-white one to which this picture does no justice:

The scenes of David and his friends' lives were rich and beautiful as well, albeit in slightly stereotypical ways, and it was fairly easy to get wrapped up in their fantasy world of lavish amusements and worldly, dreamy experiences. That being said, the contrast between Jenny's school life and love life was sometimes too much; she was by far the prettiest girl in her class (as if they made a point of purposely casting average to less-than-average students), and she was far taller and more developed than either of her two closest friends (although this may be due to the fact that Carey Mulligan is 24 rather than 16...).

Plot-wise, Jenny's need to escape and experience the world was very apparent, and upon reflection it makes clear that she fell for David because of what he could offer, not for who he was. This probably would have made more sense had the director chosen to portray Jenny in the sulky, ungrateful way Lynn Barber says she behaved, since in the movie it seems plausible that in fact Jenny enjoys both her circumstances and everyone in her company. Everything David does (starting with leaving the flowers on her doorstep, if not before), is undeniably creepy and sleazy, and it was amazing to me that Jenny could have needed an outlet so desperately as to put up with it. Barber's account makes it more plain that she never found her boyfriend attractive, and in fact liked his friend Danny much more (which was displayed well in the film through the characters' respective chemistries with each other). There is also something rather infuriating about Jenny's character development; she turns on her boyfriend without even any sort of a proper goodbye (and I believe his gravest offenses were being adorably awkward and giving her the same New Latin Dictionary for her birthday as her father), and talks back to her teacher and headmistress in ways that I can't even imagine would be allowed now, even in the most lenient of circumstances (and much less post-war England).

As a college student one semester from graduating after spending years and years studying and stressing, it was in some ways sad to see this film. I want to see the world before I decide what I want to do with my life (currently: no idea), and most of all I want to go back to Paris and do whatever I want to do, without a silly two-and-a-half-day itinerary and parentally conceived notions of what we should see. There was something remarkably alluring about the lavish, excessive life, even though I actually get very uncomfortable with unnecessary extravagance. This feeling would have been erased had the ending (see below, complete with spoilers) not been what it was, but as it was what it was, this feeling remains.

Which brings me to the ending: after getting engaged (which surprised me a little), Jenny discovers that David is actually married (not surprising, although I more expected him to get arrested), stupidly thinks that he will actually own up to this (he does not), delays her Oxford entrance examinations by a year so she can study, and... gets in. I could not accept that she got in. I understand that this was her goal and supposed destiny, but it just seems that she learned nothing from her experience. (Nor could I accept the smallness of the Oxford envelope, or the gimmicky way in which Jenny pretends to be upset by her letter but is actually very pleased.) Jenny ends up where she always wanted to end up, with a year-long, whirlwind detour in between that enriched her cultural life, apparently without a scratch to show for it. She gets away with blaming her parents for her failed engagement, even though she was the one who knew he was involved in shady and/or illegal activities and chose to ignore them because she loved his life too much. I was temporarily pleased when the headmistress refused to allow her back into school, but then her English teacher comes to the rescue and so Jenny gets away with that too.

And so I (along with my friends) left the movie with a sense of dissatisfaction, for if Jenny got to go to Oxford after having this fabulous interruption, why couldn't we? Her parents to some extent very much reminded me of mine, and it seemed so unjust that we would end up in the same place (metaphorically) via completely different paths.

That is, until I read the excerpt from Lynn Barber's memoir. In one sense her memoir does little to change Jenny's characterization as a shielded, immature girl; Barber knew all along that David (or rather Simon) was stealing and bouncing checks, and did nothing about it, keeping her parents believing that he was as perfect as they believed. When the truth came out about his wife, Barber writes that her parents were genuinely shocked, and yet has no qualms about blaming them for pushing her into engagement (and apparently has not changed her attitude since). Does she really think she has no role to play in this? But in another sense her memoir reveals that indeed Barber did learn from her experience ("But there were other lessons Simon taught me that I regret learning. I learned not to trust people; I learned not to believe what they say but to watch what they do; I learned to suspect that anyone and everyone is capable of "living a lie". I came to believe that other people - even when you think you know them well - are ultimately unknowable. Learning all this was a good basis for my subsequent career as an interviewer, but not, I think, for life."), and as a result her acceptance to St. Anne's College at Oxford seems much more natural and justified. The movie lacks in a significant way by failing to fully reveal the extent of Barber's emotional scarring and growth; the last voice-over from Jenny is too carefree, too smug, and too innocent to come from a teenager who went through what she did.

Overall, An Education is a pleasant way to spend an hour and a half, even if the ending does tend to damage it all. Alfred Molina as Jenny's father is absolutely hysterical, as is some of the awkwardness between Jenny and David. It leaves me satisfied in a sad way to know that Barber, if not Jenny, truly was educated, and that her acceptance to Oxford did nothing to allow her to forget.

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