Monday, 18 March 2013

Two Scenes on a Sunday Monday: An Education

A consecutive week of two instead of one scene is owing both to my need to make up for missed deadlines in the series recently and for being a day late with this entry. Also, it’s very difficult finding a single continuous scene from An Education to focus on. If you’re an old reader of the blog you would recall how enamoured I was with Lone Scherfig’s film in 2009 (it still edges out Bright Star by a sliver for my favourite of the year). An Education, with its very pretty mise en scène is so aesthetically pleasing, and it flits along at such a quick pace it’s easy to take it at face value as a light romp that’s obliquely interested in classy faux-arty things which vaguely middlebrow films examine loosely. However, accepting only that illusion of easy beauty and not the messier nodes beneath does the film a significant disservice. This is not a review of An Education, but two short – effective – scenes to consider from it suggest so much about the difficult questions the film examines.

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…?
It’s why I love this shot of the class as the scene begins. Not much time is spent at school, but some of Scherfig’s finer moments are there. She gets the hustle and bustle of the school room without making it fanciful or full of drudgery.

          MISS STUBBS: “All your exercise books on my desk in a pile, please.”

That Chanel perfume which all the girls at school give money for Jenny to buy for them in Paris. It’s such a quaint indication of school-age interests.

          JENNY: “I bought this for you.”

          MISS STUBBS: “That's very kind of you. But I can't accept it.”

          JENNY: “Why not?”


          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.


I appreciate simple things like Jenny’s maturity telegraphed through things like her hair which is so fuller and bouncy than naïve Jenny. If this was a novel that Chanel perfume would be something Lit teachers force students to write on as a symbol. So sweet smelling, but…

...more on this scene and another below the jump...

          MISS STUBBS: “Jenny.”

          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?”

          JENNY: “I'm not quite sure what you're trying to tell me.”(Of course, she’s baiting Miss Stubbs. She knows.)

          MISS STUBBS: “I’m telling you to go to Oxford. No matter what. 'Cause if you don't, you'll break my heart.”


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.

          JENNY: “Where did you go?”

          MISS STUBBS: “Cambridge.”                
          JENNY: “Well. You're clever. And you're pretty. So presumably, Clever Miss Stubbs won. And here you are with your pony essays. I don't know. These last few months, I've eaten in wonderful restaurants, and went to jazz clubs, and watch wonderful films, heard beautiful music...”

          MISS STUBBS: “Jenny, you're taking precautions.”

          JENNY: “ Nothing to do with that.”

          MISS STUBBS: “Isn't it?”

          JENNY: “Maybe will our lives going to end up with pony essays. Or housework. And yes, maybe we'll go to Oxford. But if we're all going to die the moment we graduate, isn’t it what we do before that counts.”

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?

          MISS STUBBS: “I'm sorry you think I'm dead.”

          JENNY: “I don't think you're dead. I just...”          
          MISS STUBBS: “I think you'd better get to your next class.”

That image of Jenny there alone is the true image of heartbreak than the later conventional source of heartbreak. And, on that note we move to an analogous scene.


Jenny gets engaged to David and makes plans to leave schools before taking the A-Levels.

          MISS WALTERS: “How far advanced are these ridiculous plans? Have you set a date? Have you decided on a church?

          JENNY: “We won't be getting married in a church. David's Jewish.”

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.

          MISS WALTERS: “Jewish? He's a Jew? You're aware, I take it, that the
Jews killed our Lord?”
          JENNY: “And you're aware, I suppose, that our Lord was Jewish?”
          MISS WALTERS: “I suppose he told you that. We're all very sorry about what happened at during the War. But that's absolutely no excuse for that sort of malicious and untruthful propaganda. Anyway, I can see you are far more in need of responsible advice than I realised. Nobody does anything worth doing without a degree.”

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?

          JENNY: “Nobody does anything worth doing with the degree. No woman, anyway.”
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.

          MISS WALTERS: “So what I do isn't worth doing. Or what Miss Stubbs does, or Mrs Wilson, or any of us here. Because none of us would be here without the degree, you do realise that, don't you? And yes, of course studying is hard, and boring – ”        
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.

          JENNY: “Boring!”

          MISS WALTERS: “I'm sorry?”
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.

          JENNY: “Studying is hard and boring. Teaching is hard and boring. So what you're telling me is to be bored, and then bored, and finally bored again, but this time for the rest of my life. This whole stupid country is bored. There's no life in it, or colour, or fun. It's probably just as well that the Russians are going to drop a nuclear bomb on us any day now. So my choice is to do something hard and boring, or to marry my Jew, and go to Paris and Rome and listen to jazz and read and eat good food in nice restaurants and have fun. It's not enough to educate us anymore, Mrs Walters. You've got to tell us why you're doing it.”
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.

          MISS WALTERS: “It doesn't have to be teaching, you know. There's the Civil Service.”


          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?
It’s why I’m fond of that closing image – Jenny’s visage is blurred behind the door and she becomes just one of the faceless lot asking questions. When Jenny returns after her fall from grace Miss Walters “You’re not a woman” smarts because it deconstructs the notions of Jenny’s specialness making her just one of a line of girls who thought they were smarter than they knew.

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?


Suzy said...

Lovely analysis. Thompson is excellent & the civil service line always makes me laugh.

Love your take on the baton being passed from Thompson to Mulligan.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

suzy thanks. i'm such a big fan of this film. and that scene with thompson is so effective, and yet so funny in the margins. i love how stumped she looks at carey's question.