Wake up, li'l Susie
"What did you come here for anyway?" "I love old things. They make me feel sad." "What's good about sad?" "It's happy for deep people."
That's Carey Mulligan as Sally Sparrow, talking to her best friend Kathy Nightingale (don't ask) in the 2007 season episode of Dr. Who called "Blink." "Blink" was special; as written by Steven Moffat, it's the tautly told thirty-minute story of a young girl forced to deal with The Weeping Angels, a particularly sinister Whovian foe--stare at them steadily and they're nothing, can do nothing, they're just stone figures. Look away or--God forbid--blink for even a second and they have you.
Or at least Sally had you. As played by Mulligan, she was a spunky young girl with enormous, immediate appeal. When a police officer asks her out for a drink, she challenges him "Why?" "Because life is short and you are hot." Oh yeah.
It's not just that she was drop-dead gorgeous and had a smile punctuated with dimples to die for; she could also handle Moffat's at times intricate lines with razor-sharp wit and precision ("People don't understand time; it's not what you think it is." "Then what is it?" "Complicated." "Tell me." "Very complicated." "I'm clever and I'm listening. Now don't patronise me 'cause people have died, and I'm not happy. Tell me"). Tell the truth Moffat's lines can make almost anyone seem witty and precise, but on Sparrow's--sorry, Mulligan's--lips they have a specially thrilling sparkle, like iced champagne. It's the dimples, too, I suspect; wish he could have worked with her more.
As it is, we have to make do with Lone Scherfig's An Education (2009), a fairly well-budgeted British production with a Nick Hornby script based on a short memoir by journalist Lynn Barber. Mulligan plays Jenny, a sixteen year old middle-class girl dying of boredom in one of London's suburbia, in the '60s. Jenny has ambitions--she goes to a girl's school, and she's hoping to read English in Oxford someday. Then she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard).
The film's finest moments--the core and reason, I suspect, Scherfig wanted to make this picture--are its early scenes, when Jenny is being wooed by David and she allows herself to be wooed. David is dashing, funny, handsome, sophisticated, everything a girl could want; Jenny is ambitious and greedy but in the way young people often are, less repulsive than remarkable--you want to just sit back and watch them go at it with their boundless enthusiasm. She has moments when she looks at David with skepticism--"are you for real?" is her unspoken question. Then she jumps in the car, or skips out of school, or finagles her way past her semi-watchful parents into David's arms.
We mostly have Mulligan's performance to suggest this intelligence, this knowingness; Sherfig and Hornby have reworked Jenny to be a far more innocent creature than the girl Lynn Barber wrote about in her memoirs--Lynn knew, for instance, long before her parents did or before she ever had concrete proof, that there was something fishy about her older boyfriend, but goes with him anyway. We do see some hint of this in the picture: when David proposes something outrageous--a weekend in Oxford, or a trip to Paris--Jenny doesn't so much pressure her parents as she does pressure David to try persuade them to let her go; later, when something happens in the countryside and Jenny confronts David about it she's angry, but also willing to be mollified by David's not-quite-sufficient explanations.
The general outline of Jenny's onscreen fall is fairly straightforward, however--when the turd hits the fan she's as stunned as any helpless cow, and weeps in self-pity. In Lynn's memoirs she was always in the driver's seat; if she didn't always have full control of the course of her life, she could at least see the general outlines of the curves and hairpin turns--a difficult quality to dramatize on the big screen, but one that could have made the film that much more complex, that much more memorable.
It's crucial to the whole project that we don't think of Jenny as being incurably stupid; casting bright-eyed Mulligan in the role goes a long way in preventing that. She's bored, she wants excitement, she's willing to do something risky to inject some fun in her life--ce'st les jeunes! She doesn't lose us just because she's being foolish; if anything, we hope against hope that she comes out all right (if, for instance, they had cast a younger Kiera Knightly, I would have personally shoved her in front of David's speeding Bristol).
As David, Sarsgaard is a charmer; he has a few soft-sell techniques stuffed up his sleeve that he tries on Jenny's father and mother (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour, both terrific), but his most potent weapon is his sincerity--he really loves Jenny and even manages to sell her on the idea (Jenny's father he won over long ago). That's the film's real sting--not that Jenny is so invested in their dreams, but that David believes in them, too. His conviction is even more touching than hers, mainly because he knows more about the whole situation (and still believes). Arrayed against the lovers is Emma Thompson's principal (complacent, vindictive, and surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly) anti-Semtic) and Olivia Williams' teacher (severe yet idealistic), an unlikely if somewhat Quixotic pair to champion a girl's school education.
The film's concluding scenes (please skip this paragraph if you plan to watch) are a bit of a letdown after Scherfig's carefully calibrated opening tone of cheerful corruption. Worse is the sudden wrap-up, leaving Jenny pretty much where she wants to be, as if nothing more serious happened than a yeast infection. Learning is a more painful process than that (unspoken implication: if you haven't suffered enough, you probably haven't learned enough). Even Lynn's memoirs included a bit more by way of complications, including a scene where her present boyfriend meets her former--and, comically, the cycle of charmed and charmer begins again. At the very least, they could have kept the 'comically'--the final twenty minutes are dreary.
The film's title is An Education after all, and that's what we witness--a girl's education, not just on Latin and literature, but on life, the perils of self-delusion, the cost of indulgence. And I don't mean this just in a cliched "don't drop out or this'll happen" manner--as Barber points out and we see for ourselves, Jenny walks into her fate bright eyes wide open. She gets almost as much out of David as he gets out of her, and David is almost as devastated as she is when things eventually go wrong. She wants to live life to the fullest, make her own mistakes, and life obliges her. All we--and her parents--can do is watch, hope, maybe pray a little.
First published in Businessworld, 9.9.10