Directed by Lone Scherfig
The British film An Education is receiving ecstatic notices for its evocation of the relationship between an intellectually precocious 16-year-old girl in early 1960s London and a sweet but shady fellow who looks to be 20 years her senior. It is a lively and infectious movie with a vivid central performance by a young actress named Carey Mulligan, who dominates the screen in a fashion that has drawn comparisons between this debut and Audrey Hepburn's in Roman Holiday more than a half-century ago.
But there's something crucially wrong with An Education. The in- appropriate relationship at the heart of the movie doesn't really make sense. Mulligan's poised star turn, the sprightly look provided by director Lone Scherfig, and the movie's intelligent screenplay (by the novelist Nick Hornby) offer many distractions from this central flaw, but in the end, it overwhelms them.
Jenny, the protagonist, seems alternately too savvy and too naïve to be such easy prey for an older predator. And the predator, played by the American actor Peter Sarsgaard with a strained English accent, seems far too kindly and beneficent-and far too good-looking-to be either a repugnant seducer or a sly crook. By the end, the events we've witnessed don't seem to have had much effect on Jenny's life, either for good or ill. You don't really know why you've watched what you've watched, or why you should care.
It turns out the film is based on the memoir of an infamously snippy British newspaperwoman named Lynn Barber. An excerpt from the memoir appeared in the Guardian over the summer, and the discrepancies between Barber's account of her teenage affair and the movie's portrayal of it expose the essential fraudulence of An Education, and the reason it seems to crumble in front of you while you are watching it.
In Barber's account, her seducer was not a handsome movie star but a "rather short, rather ugly, long-faced, splay-footed man who talked in different accents and lied about his age." He said he was 27 but was actually in his late thirties. His name was Simon Goldman. (It's David in the movie, and the prettification of the first name is suggestive of the larger failure in the characterization.) He showered her with gifts and affection, but she never really liked him or was interested in him.
"My role in the relationship was to be the schoolgirl ice maiden, implacable, ungrateful, unresponsive to everything he said or did," Barber writes. "To ask questions would have shown that I was interested in him, even that I cared, and neither of us really wanted that."
Their physical relationship was desultory; Simon had no aggression in him, and accepted every excuse she proffered to avoid intimacy. She tried to break it off several times out of boredom, but he wouldn't desist. Finally, he proposed marriage, and it was the proposal, and her acceptance of it, that led to the unraveling of their relationship.
Many details from Barber's account are present in the movie, including creepy details like Simon's predilection for baby talk and some casual thievery in which he engages. But Sarsgaard's sweet manner and his smashing looks make these moments seem more quirky than disturbing. What is entirely absent from the movie is any sense of one role that Lynn/Jenny plays in the relationship aside from being the recipient of Simon/David's largesse. Barber's cold-eyed description of her teenage self as a "schoolgirl ice maiden" bears no relation whatsoever to Mulligan's adorably fizzy and admirably tough-minded Jenny.
If Jenny gets "an education," as the title promises, it is that there are no shortcuts around hard work and dedication to schooling. That was not the education Barber describes receiving. She says that her "experience with Simon entirely cured my craving for sophistication. By the time I got to Oxford, I wanted nothing more than to meet kind, decent, straightforward boys my own age. . . . I would marry one eventually and stay married all my life and for that, I suppose, I have Simon to thank."
But her involvement with a shady con man damaged her in terrible ways, Barber writes: "I learned not to trust people; I learned not to believe what they say but to watch what they do. . . . Learning all this was a good basis for my subsequent career as an interviewer, but not, I think, for life. It made me too wary, too cautious, too ungiving."
The true story behind An Education is not a tragedy, but it is sad. Barber wrote her rueful words at the age of 65. The movie suggests that she emerged from the experience maybe a little sadder, certainly a little wiser, and with her vivacity intact. That is not what happened to Barber, by her own account, and by going with a happy-survivor version of the truth, the movie seeks to deceive its audience. But enough remains of the real tale of Barber's education that you can tell, as the credits roll, that you've just been told a lie.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is THE WEEKLY STANDARD's movie critic.