In 1980, a 33-year-old Benny Mardones trolled and wailed on his one-hit wonder, slow-dance anthem, “Into the Night,” with the strained effort of Sisyphus at the crest of the hill.
She’s just sixteen years old
Leave her alone, they say
Separated by fools
Who don’t know what love is yet
But I want you to know
If I could fly
I’d pick you up
I’d take you into the night
And show you a love
Like you’ve never seen, ever seen
It’s, charitably, an unsettling ode. Because I was entering high school as the tune moved up the charts, the song’s refrain was particularly ominous. As a teen, it was hard enough vying with my peers for the attention of our female classmates; it was made an all-the-more daunting task when girls would be escorted to dances by mustached dates who owned their own cars, had their own apartments and whose yearbook photos were already becoming musty. Youth was sufficiently disconcerting without house parties being crashed by Keith Hernandez clones in Girbaud jeans.
It was Benny’s track looping in my head when I saw “An Education” the unevenly toned tale of a preternaturally composed and sophisticated 16-year-old’s romantic relationship with a flash, older man in early 1960s London. Based on Lynn Barber’s memoir, director Lone Scherfig’s fair yet unsustaining film follows the bright and mature Jenny (Carey Mulligan) as the Oxford hopeful embarks on a dubious courtship during a whirlwind last year of secondary school.
At home, Jenny is harried by an unyielding father (an arch Alfred Molina as Jack) who is obsessed with having his daughter gain entrance into Oxford. He insists on Latin and cello lessons as resume stuffers. One rainy day, after compulsory cello practice, she’s offered a ride in a slick car by a smooth man who must be nothing less than in his md-20s, even though his exact age is not revealed in the film. (In an illuminating interview, Barber told The Guardian this summer that the actual man who picked her up “was –he said – 27, but was probably in his late 30s.” The well-bred David (Peter Sarsgaard, adopting a more than passable English accent) begins to court the teen with the awareness of her parents. He treats Jenny to classical concerts, takes her to nightclubs, ushers her to a selective auction and introduces her to his wealthy friends Danny, (played ably by Dominic Cooper) and his dim girlfriend, Helen (a resoundingly good Rosamund Pike), who contorts her face into an assortment of befuddled expressions. Against this competition, Graham, a skittish but sweet classmate who pines for Jenny, doesn’t stand a chance. The film at this point doesn’t seem terribly concerned that it’s a school night every night for our teen.
Due to her father’s desperation to get his only daughter into a specific university — and her mother Margaret’s acquiescence (Cara Seymour, in a dutiful but thankless role) — Jenny is allowed to dash away with David for a weekend at Oxford, under the fabricated excuse that she’ll meet one of David’s former tutors, C.S. Lewis. Enveloped in this adult world of bon vivants and rapscallions, she becomes, predictably, bored with her high school life; in turn, the school’s headmistress (Emma Thompson, doing yeoman’s work) and her literature teacher, Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams) are cast as parochial for their disapproval.
Despite a first-rate ensemble and attractive visuals – with pleasing cinematography by John de Borman, production design by Andrew McApline and set decoration by Anna Lynch-Robinson — “An Education” doesn’t have much novel to say about those gap years between adolescence and adulthood. Surprisingly, for a Nick Hornby script, the dialogue doesn’t sing; this is Hornby’s first screenplay since 1997’s “Fever Pitch.” Jenny doesn’t narrate the story, or keep a diary, or have a best friend in whom she confides. Mulligan provides a strong performance but the film feels episodic and it too often lacks emotional specifics. After David whisks her away to Paris for a weekend, Jenny sighs with almost forced naivety “I never did anything before I met you,” with the innocence of a gold medal winning teenaged gymnast breathlessly saying that “I’ve dreamt of this moment my whole life.” When the movie does confront the more serious consequences of the relationship, it skims over them. “An Education” even falls back on a musical montage of Jenny studying. Admittedly it would be quite boring to film a person reading in real-time, but the sequence feels like a replacement for insight into her attitudes and thoughts as she prepares for college life. And when her father undergoes a change of heart, it’s an example of how a movie can deliver an epiphany unearned. (But it does give him a chance to leave three biscuits and a cuppa at her bedroom door as an apologetic gesture.) At one point Jenny exclaims, “Silly schoolgirls are always getting seduced by glamorous older men.” Even silly schoolboys know that.