Thursday, 19 May 2011

My Education vs. An Education (2008)

Usually when I have made one of my pilgrimages to the National Film Theatre -- most often to view some obscurity in the furtherance of my cinema education -- I feel obliged to go into some detail and to record my thoughts for future reference.  Unfortunately the film in question is sometimes something of a disappointment, especially if I have been reading about it for years before catching up with it.  Such was the case with the Russian silent "Bed and Sofa" (1927).  Banned here on its release (not that I was around then) because of its amoral subject matter, it is occasionally mentioned as an insightful glimpse into Soviet life of the time.

Its director Abram Room was apparently one of the leading masters of the 1920s, but he has since faded into obscurity -- and no, the name means nothing to me either.  The original Russian title is sometimes translated as "Menage a Trois" which gives you some idea of the film's subject matter. Because of the housing shortage, a married proletariat couple take in a lodger -- an old war comrade of the husband -- who sleeps on the sofa, while they snooze on the (rather small) double bed behind a screen.  When hubby is away on business, the friend inveigles his way into the bed, relegating the husband to the sofa on his return.  An uneasy way of life follows with the husband and friend having a better time in each others' company than the wife and with occasional shifts in their sleeping patterns.  But no, the wife doesn't end up on the sofa with the other two in the bed, which might have been even more shocking for the time.  Instead, the wife becomes pregnant and, without knowing which of the two is the father, is encouraged to go to an abortion clinic (apparently these did a roaring trade then).  Finally she leaves the pair of them in pursuit of the Utopian future promised for all by the country's ideological masters.

Although played broadly as potential comedy, I found little amusing about the tale -- although others in the theatre were chuckling away.  The only really interesting bits were in the scene-setting shots of Moscow, aerial views of the workers hustling about like so many ants in their hill, and some dynamic montage of train journeys.

And so to the British film in which rising actress Carey Mulligan found her breakthrough role, "An Education".  Despite its being hyped to the skies on its release, I had not seen it previously and was not at all certain what I would think.  She plays a sixteen-year old schoolgirl, Jenny, whose upwardly-aspiring surburban parents push her to the academic dream of an Oxford degree.  She has a 'cute' meeting with the much older David, played by Peter Sarsgaard (although not pointedly as an American), and is dazzled by his apparent worldliness.  Together with his mate Dominic Cooper and his louche girlfriend, Rosalind Pike playing a true 'dimbo , she relishes their would-be sophistication with classical concerts, jazz sessions, nightclubs, swish restaurants, and dirty weekends in first Oxford and then Paris.  Mulligan has vowed not to lose her virginity until she turns 17 and David is just the man to oblige.  When he proposes, her parents eagerly encourage marriage to a man of whom they know little and who has pulled the wool over their eyes as well, thinking that this is even better than going to university in terms of securing her future.  Only after she has dropped out of school before taking her exams, does she discover that dear David is a married family man with a run of affairs behind him -- but at least she is not pregnant, unlike several of his former lovers.

There have been indications throughout that Sarsgaard and Cooper are less than they seem, upper class 'wide boys' involved in art swindles, Rachmanism (dubious real estate fiddles), and more.  However, Sarsgaard's David seems nearly as plausible to us as he does to Jenny and we are almost as unpleasantly surprised as she when the truth emerges.  He has 'educated' her in the fripperies of the high life, but he has also shown her the meanness of the real world.  Her loss of innocence is turned into an old-fashioned morality play.

The sharp script was adapted by Nick Hornby from a memoir by leading journalist Lynn Barber.  The fact that she wrote this while her aging parents were still alive does suggest something of a mean streak on her part, since her submissive mother and her bumptious but unsure father, wonderfully nailed by Alfred Molina, come off as grotesque characters,  The caricature of her bigoted headmistress, an unworthy role for Emma Thompson, is not any kinder.  Only her spinsterish teacher, played by Olivia Williams, whom she had previously disparaged, comes off with any grace.  All in all this is a solid film, probably worth viewing, but far from a great one.  
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