School for Scandal

November 17, 2009

One easily forgets how innocent those pretty young things really are… They are so good at having us believe they are experienced. Most men manage to resist the temptation of going after a ingénue, of course, but others, like the decadent and indecent Humbert Humbert and Roman Polanski, simply can”€™t. An Education,  Lynn Barber’s memoir about growing up in 1960s London, is a classic story of innocence lost. A coquettish girl. A broken man. A lesson for all young women and would-be second-handers. Part of the journalist’s memoir was adapted for the screen by the illustrious Nick Hornby, and the BBC film is directed by Lone Sherfig, a Danish woman with only one other English language flick to her credit and experience outside the mainstream. 

The lecher is played to skin-crawling perfection by Peter Sarsgaard, a young American actor with an eerie resemblance to John Malkovich. His character, David, spots wide-eyed Jenny waiting for the bus in the rain. Immediately, he does his best to assure her he is trustworthy: he shows off his wealth. For any young girls reading out there, this is the first sign of a cheat. If he’s rich, he must be decent. Au contraire ma cher, pas du tout! Jenny dazzles David with her knowledge of music, art, and her good French, and he, in turn, draws her out of her boring life in Twickenham, showing her a spot of fun and adventure.

Carey Mulligan is absolutely irresistible as 16-year-old Jenny, a star pupil. Her father, played by Alfred Molina, is a fearful man who does his best to protect her. But, he, too, falls victim to David’s lies and manipulations, as well as to his own bourgeois mentality. (Molina’s Jack is always launching into moralizing tirades, which are amusing at first but go on much too long; thankfully, piety is trumped and Molina’s relents after a while.) Alongside her dad, Jenny struggles against the patriarchal paradigm that somehow, even now, stunts so many men and women.

We all know that education is important, but the “€œeducation”€ of the movie’s title isn”€™t academic and cultural but one that, unfortunately for most, can only be acquired from humbling and painful experiences. 

Jenny’s best ally in the film is her teacher, played by Olivia Williams, who also played the teacher and object of desire in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. Though in this film, she is not the love object, but the one who lives an enviably independent life. Her character is so very English, but Williams’s performance is too severe. And why would the director choose to down play her good looks? On the other hand, Emma Thompson, who appears in a few short scenes, is excellent portraying the elegant but humorless headmistress.

Jenny is exceptionally clever and quick to question her teachers. But in reality, no quick-witted teenager could ever dream of challenging a grown up so articulately. Perhaps Hornby is too eager here to write what many of us would liked to have said to our own teachers. Nevertheless, the scenes between Jenny and her instructors don”€™t cease to be engaging. On the contrary, they are the most accurate and interesting moments in the film because they show how a young woman, with the sweet taste of freedom in her mouth, acts to take charge of herself.     

By the time David is exposed as a lying cheat, Jenny is forced to reckon with the consequences of her naiveté. She goes to see David’s partners in crime, played by Matthew Beard and Rosamund Pike. Beard’s character, Graham, points out that Jenny chose to ignore the signs that David was no good—forcing Jenny to be as critical with herself as she is with her teachers. Graham is tortured by his own complicity and complexity. And Pike’s performance as the dumb blonde girlfriend is absolutely brilliant, glamorous, and, ironically, witty. With such good writing, it would be tough not to be.

The picture itself is visually enticing. The styles and mores of 1960s London compliment the story well. The production designer, Andrew McAlpine, who won a BAFTA for his work on The Piano, has what the principal characters in the film have: a cultivated sense of taste. Indeed, the costumes and props make one long for another time. It seems that even the poor of the mid-20th century were more distinguished than the average person today. It’s too bad a typical movie-goer probably won”€™t get much of an education in style from their 10 buck movie ticket. Nevertheless, Barber and Hornby get it right in this well-presented and upbeat coming-of-age romp.          


Sign Up to Receive Our Latest Updates!