It’s said you never forget your first love, an utterance proved cinematically true in countless ways. It requires innocence on behalf at least one of the parties, a flowering, a deflowering, some magic, some awkwardness, and a final, wrenching fall from grace, after which time lessons are learned. However it plays out, it’s a scenario we can all understand and appreciate.
All these qualities have to be present in an interesting coming of age movie, and “An Education,” directed by Lone Scherfig, written by Lynn Barber and Nick Hornby, a movie about first love you’ll never forget, has them in spades.
It’s set in London, 1961. Peter Sarsgaard plays David, a velvety man of means, polite and patient (effective characteristics for what he ends up doing), driver of a maroon sports car, seemingly on the up and up. One rainy day he encounters a 16-year-old girl, Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a speaker of French, a smoker of cigarettes, a reader of Camus. She’s pert, bright, lovely, giggles, and is utterly charming. Claiming to be a music maven, he offers to drive her cello home, knowing an invitation into his car would be taken the wrong way. He is, after all, at least twice her age. She walks alongside, intrigued.
With cosmopolitan derring-do, he courts and wins her. He bowls over her parents Jack (Alfred Molina) and Marjorie (Cara Seymour) with his good intentions. He introduces her to his friends, Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike). He shows her a way of life of which she, who hopes she can get into and afford to go to Oxford, can only dream: lavish dinners, posh homes, the prospect of trips to Paris, art, music, and a life of leisurely, extravagant fun.
It’s all a ruse. He’s not what he says he is. He’s a crook, a predator, a cad. All this unfolds amidst subtle clues that Jenny, wide-eyed, in-what-she-thinks-is-love, about to lose that virginity, doesn’t notice. David’s downfall is subtle but as he becomes more childish, Jenny becomes preternaturally mature. She comes out of it okay (the final scene’s at Oxford; order has been restored to the universe) but not before she gets An Education in the ways of men.
David hides many secrets. First there’s what he does for a living. He didn’t earn or inherit the money he lavishes on Jenny. No, he’s a gentleman crook preying on the old, the infirm, and the disenfranchised. Second there’s the matter of his private life (she’s not the first, alas), the details of which she discovers accidentally in the glove box of his car. All these things we might sense at the beginning – anything too good to be true usually isn’t – but they careen home at the end.
This coming of age movie depends on the relationship between David and Jenny. At the onset he’s worldly, an apparent gentleman, generous, she’s a blank slate eager to drink in the world and if it’s with David and not her gawky though adorable schoolmate Graham (Matthew Beard), then so be it. It’s reminds me of the theme song from “To Sir With Love:” Those schoolgirl days, of telling tales and biting nails are gone...” Interestingly enough though, at the end the roles are reversed: she schools him.
The faces are the key here. The film offers many opportunities to view them close up. Sarsgaard’s is smooth, unlined (he’s not that old). He’s handsome, sophisticated (Read: shifty), and confident. But that’s all a sham and when he realizes the jig’s up, that face begins to crack like porcelain. Mulligan’s face is equally marmoreal, wide-eyed, and eager. Her smile as she’s let into David’s secret world is a natural wonder. But watch how it hardens, how her lips are pursed, how an I’m ruined scowl is etched on her forehead. By the end, though, thanks to the efforts of a once-scorned and mocked and very forgiving teacher, Miss Stubs (Olivia Williams, in a magnificently underplayed performance), Jenny finds herself at university, with a secret of her own: unlike many if not most of her contemporaries, she’s compressed a lifetime of experience into a few months and, better for the experience, is ready to once again take on the world, on her own terms, presumably with men her own age.