Sunday, 6 December 2009

Cinema: An Education

Usually, I go to the cinema alone. Sad, I know, but it's a fact. Sad too that it might mean I miss out on films like 'An Education'. When selecting which movies I see, I don't just apply a judgement of personal taste, I also gauge popular predeliction, asking who else will be there, a factor in my enjoyment of the occasion. If teenagers are the core audience, forget it. Individually, teenagers are often acceptable company in the way that a dog alone is a personable companion. But gather teenagers - or dogs - into a pack and they behave like a pack: all flying popcorn, giggling conversation and bleeping mobile phones. Given teenagers are the core audience of most movie theatres, I don't just strike out whole genres as options, but chains of venues. Where they gather, I avoid.

Not that many teenagers are likely to see 'An Education'. More sophisticated female sixth formers maybe, adolescents more like the heroine of this story, a coming of age tale come older-man-grooms-younger-woman morality piece based on Lynn Barber's autobiography of the same title, set in a pre-Beatles 1960s London, but scripted by Nick Hornby. However, based on the poster alone, I might have assumed this was marketed at dates for couples where the female is the dominant partner or groups of women who gather monthly to gossip, drink wine and have a slice of culture with their cafe latte. In short, the kind of people I'd like to hang out with were I not a sad solo male movie goer, understandably considered untrustworthy company.

Naturally, I empathised with the predatory male at the centre of the story, when the audience is expected to side with the young female protagonist, a superbly nuanced performance by Carey Mulligan that deserves to win a clutch of awards. In the Lynn Barber book - which began as an essay length piece in Granta - her older man is an altogether less sympathetic character: over the cusp of middle age, without the physical appeal or rogueish charm that Peter Sarsgaard brings to the profession of the slum landlord. His character has more elements to integrate and he almost succeeds, especially in the central mystery of book and film - how did aspirational middle class parents who encouraged their only child to study for Oxford come to accept this man into their home, their daughter's life and ultimately encourage her to be his wife, a proposal she chose not to accept, but only because he was not only spliced, but a Daddy twice over.

Lynn Barber ultimately published her memoir while her elderly parents were still alive, exposing their small mindedness and duplicitous values to all; now projected onto the big screen. It says a lot about the mores of pre-feminist England: ultimately, a father's duty was to find his daughter a good man, goodness defined by means rather than morals. In truth, the book is much crueller, denying mummy and daddy the sympathy that Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour bring to their roles, but it is a cruelty they deserved - in any era, parents who collude in the seduction of their daughter by such an unsuitable suitor deserve cross-examination at the very least, if not abandonment.

This story within the story isn't majored in the film which plays on the romance of trips to Paris and life in a London society somewhere between the opera and the greyhound track. That is it's failing but also its success - Nick Hornby plots a course between authenticity of source and setting, and the darker heart of fifties suburbia, an era now bizarrely celebrated as a golden age. Carey Mulligan as Jennie Miller exposes the lies of her seducer and the hypocrisy of her parents herself, returns to her books and escapes to Oxford an independent woman, ready to claim her own life and live it on her terms, something Lynn Barber has done ever since, becoming one of the great journalists of our times. Her older man was never much of a lover anyhow, preferring baby talk to love making, living so many lives in parallel, he never quite knew who he was.

The film is made for a more forgiving audience: the girl is prettier, her seducer handsomer, the story arc'd rather than jagged, pitched somewhere between escapism and exploitation. What it captures is the end of an era, where the fifties meets the sixties and is found wanting. Women would soon have different choices to those offered by Lynn Barber's parents, and it was Lynn Barber's generation that won them for those that followed. This is an end of innocence movie, but its hard won experience was put to good use in making a life on her own terms, something the movie only hints at with its open ending. An alternative was almost chosen: a final confrontation eighteen months later that never happened in life, or thankfully, on celluloid. Possibility, not closure, is the best way to finish.

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