An Education (12A)

4.00

Too cool for school

Of all literary genres, memoir is surely the most resistant to cinematic treatment: the point of view of a memoir is, however hard the memoirist struggles for objectivity, on the inside looking out.

Films are, just as inevitably, on the outside looking in. Lynn Barber's An Education, originally a short piece in an issue of Granta, was a marvellous account of an episode in her life – her relationship, as a precociously clever 16-year-old, with an older man, who managed to seduce both her and, less literally, her parents. But it was also an evocation of a particular moment, the early Sixties, when one way of looking at the world, a kind of wilful innocence, had begun to seem outmoded and insufficient but nothing had been found to replace it. And it is not a surprise, and only the mildest disappointment, that Lone Scherfig's film is more period-piece than character study.

The film begins by laying out the boundaries of the world inhabited by Jenny (Carey Mulligan), the fictionalised version of Barber: she's a clever girl in a dull suburban setting, apparently destined for Oxford by her parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour), desperate for her to "get on". Jenny is unworldly but hungry for sophistication – given to dropping French phrases into conversation and listening to Juliette Greco records in her bedroom. Stranded in the rain on the way home from orchestra practice – she has to play in the orchestra, her parents insist, it will show the authorities at Oxford she's a "joiner-inner" – she is picked up by David (Peter Sarsgaard), an older man driving an expensive car. David is polite and attractive, he makes amusing and informed remarks about classical music, and he treats her as an equal, offering her a cigarette, soliciting her opinions. A few days later they bump into one another on the street: he invites her to a classical concert, then charms her innately suspicious parents into letting her go – though his version of charm should already be ringing alarm bells: "Jenny didn't tell me she had a sister... You're a lucky man."

Soon, outings with David and his friends, Danny and Helen (Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike), are a regular thing: concerts, art auctions, restaurants, nightclubs, an evening at the dog-track, even – her parents' anxieties lubricated by David's jokes and ready lies – weekends away. David's evident infatuation, Danny's intelligent attention, even Helen's vacuous lady-chat (a lovely and unexpected comic turn by Pike) flatter Jenny. But odd things happen along the way: on a weekend in the country, David and Danny pop into a house, then leave in a tearing hurry with something bulky under their arms. It seems the "art dealing" they do together isn't altogether legitimate; nor is David's "property developing", as Jenny should clock when, at the track, he and Danny meet a man called Peter Rachman. Then there is the romantic side of things: David is always respectful, never hurries her along. But he insists on tacky pet names and baby talk, and the night Jenny finally prepares to surrender her virginity, he proposes getting the "messy bit" over using a banana. When they do at last make love, she unwittingly pulls the rug out: "All that poetry, all those songs, for something that takes no time at all."

Nick Hornby's screenplay lays out the progress of their relationship, up to the point where David proposes marriage, with great economy and wit. You see clearly how much Jenny needs the life David shows her, how little she needs him, and you see how, in her hunger for the life, she manages to look away from the pervasive shabbiness underpinning it. The script is matched by Scherfig's very cool, understated direction, and some fine performances. Mulligan manages to seem both childlike and middle-aged, and always appealingly curious. Molina, incapable of seeming boringly suburban, nevertheless conveys the frustrated intelligence that has found its flowering in his daughter. Olivia Williams is excellent as the teacher who needs Jenny's success more than Jenny does.

As always, though, the camera is distracted by pretty, shiny things: the colours at the dog-track, the bridges of Paris, the cars and the suits and the frocks. This doesn't matter too much when these things are distracting Jenny, too; but when at last she sees what's really happening, realises how badly she and her parents have messed up, the camera is at a loss. A line about the importance of art showing, not telling, precedes a whole lot of telling – of people explaining precisely what they feel, and why. The glamour stripped away, the film seems abruptly empty, Jenny herself a cypher. We need at this point to be on the inside, looking out. If Hornby and Scherfig knew how to do that, this would be a great film; as it is, we'll have to settle for pretty good.

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick