Affable, clever A-Level student Jenny Mellor takes up with older man David Goldman. Her teachers are less than enthused when adventures with David begin to – slowly – take precedence over her structured education. Early on, after a trip to Paris for her birthday, her longsuffering English teacher confronts her.
I’ve said before, one of the reasons An Education worked so much for me not just on a cinematic level but a personal one was because the major issues facing Jenny are ones I, and I suspect any serious student, would have struggled with. An Education is so unusual because the Mr. Rochester figure of David is a red herring. The film’s main dissertation, as the title implies, is of a more basic level – after an education, what…?
MISS STUBBS: “It's because of people like you that I plough through illiterate essays by Sandra Lovell about her pony. But I know where this comes from, Jenny. And If I took it, I'll feel like I'd be betraying both of us.”
The beauty of An Education, which I’ll expound on below is how it refuses to answer the questions raised. Not because it’s avoiding them, but because there’s a clear understanding that they’re not answerable. We want to argue for Jenny here, but we also want to argue for Miss Stubs. Neither is in the wrong.
...more on this scene and another below the jump...
MISS STUBBS: “You can do anything you want. You know that. You're clever and you're pretty...Is your boyfriend interested in clever Jenny?”
I know the overwhelming “Carey Mulligan is perfection” accolades in 2009 got a bit exaggerated for some, but I adore this performance. There’s a scene I initially consider where Carey has no lines but spends the entire scene contorting her face and it’s such a fine example of how good an actor she is at telegraphing emotions facially.
And, essentially the crux of the film which is repeated in the scene below. Which student has not asked themselves this question? It’s why – scarily – school is considered to be the best years of our lives and it’s a chilling prospect. If we’re going to be dried up by the time we finish school why not just have fun instead of bothering to study? Jenny is our entry point to the film and we side with her, but the question is worth considering – does the education owe us the proof of its importance or is it vice versa? Do we owe the education we get good use of it?
Jenny gets engaged to David and makes plans to leave schools before taking the A-Levels.
This is one of my favourite random bits of the film because it so excellently zeroes in on what a child Jenny is. The reason Carey’s performance sings for me is that she manages to touch on both Jenny’s innocence and promise as well as her harsher qualities – the smart aleck ways and the know-it-all qualities. It’s the proof of the “smart” student to centre on the most innocuous part of a reprimand to point out. That she’s right in pointing out the part sure to incense Miss Walters only makes the incident more amusing.
Jews killed our Lord?”
Of course, Miss Walters is wrong in a small way, there. People do important things without degrees, but she’s defending her turf. And who can blame her? Which teacher would not feel unhappy to see a promising student stop their journey to education?
An Education’s gender politics are subtle but so effectively examined in moments like this. What place is there for any woman in the era with a degree? The road post-graduation looks ever so bleak.
Before she’s cut this is such a brilliant moment from Emma, who is one of the dozens of great bit turns in this film. I remember when An Education received that Screen Actors Guild nomination some found it a head scratcher and although only seven of the ensemble were cited there were so many other brilliant bit turns – Cara Seymour, Matthew Beard, Sally Hawkins, Ellie Kendrick. It’s a shame Carey’s meteoric performance seemed to draw attention away from the work of the ensemble. I always saw Emma’s work here as something of a baton passing. She’d shared the screen over a decade before with screen legend Vanessa Redgrave in a small turn in Howards End and now she was passing on the torch to the next future British great.
This scene functions as a monologue moment for Jenny, but great kudos to Emma who manages to make Miss Walters more than just an incidental character.
Another great note, Scherfig keeps the camera on Miss Walters at significant moments giving the audience a great opportunity to see how this significant monologue works for the listener.
It’s a monologue and I hate to break it up the tone of it, so I went wild with the screencaps.
So many points to discuss – for one, Scherfig in both scenes keeps the camera stationary for long stretches so we’re just cutting between faces and it’s where all the emotions are. It’s the most emotional part of Carey’s performance and from a pure performance level it’s arguably the film’s highpoint. Thematically, too, it’s a significant moment for the film. It’s that unanswerable question again – why are we doing it?
The first time I watched this I had just left school and I was firmly in the camp of Jenny – there’s no point if there’s no obvious reason, I argued. Multiple rewatches later and the film’s depth grows. Is it really the responsibility of the education system to prove why it is important? Take Jenny’s informal education at the hand of David and his friends – that’s education, and what’s the point in the broadest of senses? There’s no point in asking for the point of “education” – education is its own point. That Miss Walters is stumped by the monologue is not a sign of the ineffectiveness of education, but a sign of how monotonous life can seem when held up for scrutiny. But the education is still worth it, no matter what comes after.
The monologue goes to philosophical depths. Why do we wake up in the morning? Why do we work? Why not surrender to a life of decadence and enjoyment? These are questions that can’t be answered with immediacy. It’s like when children ask questions that seem easy but have no reasons. Jenny is such a child in this moment not because she’s wrong but because she’s willing to ask questions to poke holes into the routine that the older generation has accepted. The pathos comes from the fact that the older generation is not villainous, here represented by the Head Teacher, either. They don’t have an answer – and they follow the conventions of the old order, but they’re not wrong. Even if they can’t say why. It is more a signs of the world being a bleaker place than we'd imagine wide-eyed Jenny Mellor inhabiting.
JENNY: “I don't wish to be impertinent, Mrs Walters. But it is an argument worth rehearsing. You never know. Someone else might want to know the point of it all, one day.”
An Education might seem to be a simple tale but its themes dig deeper. What’s the point of it all is such a resounding question to close on. What’s the point of life, Jenny? Who knows?
An Education, asking the tough questions even as it looks lovely.
Do you agree that An Education digs deeper than it seems? Are you as fond of the supporting cast (Williams and Thompson in two great scenes, here) as I? Would Carey have won your best of 2009 honours?