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At The Movies: Youth and Beauty: An Education ****

Most of us women go through an older man phase when we are coming of age.  Usually the world we live in feels too small.  The people talk about things that don’t matter and our engine is running clean and running hot.  For us it doesn’t feel like it’s about the sex.  Presumably that is much of what we have to offer, only it doesn’t really occur to us until many years later, when we see how the world really works.

We are then left wondering whether we are better off with that older man in our history or not.  Perhaps it depends on whether our lives were enriched or degraded.  All the same, the girl is the flower, the butterfly, the temporary rainbow.

In Lone Scherfig’s An Education, Carey Mulligan plays Jenny, a bright 16 year-old with a clear path to Oxford whose trajectory is briefly derailed by the attention of an older man, Peter Sarsgaard.  He is everything the world promises to be – smart, sophisticated, funny, with great taste in art.  He first sees Jenny sitting in the rain with her cello.  He offers to help her home, saying he’s worried her cello might get ruined.

From the beginning he never pushes things – he is the ultimate seducer, well schooled and experienced.  He manages not only to charm Jenny but to charm her parents as well, so much so that after he proposes marriage, her parents encourage her to accept, to drop out of school and forget about Oxford.  After all, the university was only a way to land a husband.  Since she was already getting one, why go on and get an education?

As Jenny is spinning off the rails, several older women advise her not to ruin her life with a man. And become what instead, Jenny demands.  A teacher?  A headmistress?  Those women seemed, to Jenny, dead inside.  What do girls in high school know about the value of education, or the depth of a person?  They only know what they see on the surface, which on teachers isn’t usually that impressive.

Jenny was going to the big city, dressing up, drinking, going to museums – spending the weekend in Paris.  How could her studies compare with that?  The movie, though, has more in store for Jenny as she begins to realize what being the girlfriend of this man really means.

In full illumination, an older man who devotes so much time to younger girls ultimately can feel limiting, ironically, because what he wants isn’t someone to evolve with; rather, someone to devour.  This isn’t bad or good, it just is. And it turns out that an education can be gotten in many different ways.  It isn’t just about school, is it?  But sometimes our experiences in life can help us appreciate the value of real education.

The film is gorgeous top to bottom but it belongs most assuredly to the brilliant Carey Mulligan, who manages to capture what it is like to be a virginal teen and then an older, wiser young woman.  It is a memorable transformation. And a marvelous one. 

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