An Educationrecommended viewing

An important part of herself
Lone Scherfig
Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Olivia Williams, Alfred Molina, Emma Thompson
The Setup: 
Young British girl gets involved with an older man.

My friend and I go to a movie pretty much every week, which turns out to be good because after we’ve seen all the major releases, we end up seeing smaller things like this, that we probably would have let slip by otherwise. This is a modest little movie with little to recommend it—except excellent performances and smart direction and a very well-written script [by Nick Hornsby, adapted from a memoir]—but I suspect it will make it onto my best of the year list.

It’s London in 1961. Jenny is a smart 16-year-old who is first in her class, studies cello, is the prettiest of her friends, and seems assured of a place at Oxford. One day she meets David [played by low-key sex machine Peter Sarsgaard], who charms her while giving her a ride home. He later sends her flowers for a recital she’s giving, invites her to an auction of a pre-Raphaelite painting that she adores, and takes her out to nice dinners. She meets his friend Danny and his girlfriend Helen, played by Rosamund Pike, who emerges as one of the biggest pleasures of the film. She is an upscale bimbo, and when Jenny tries to impress her by slipping into French, she says “Why do you suddenly talk in French? For no reason?” David also charms her parents, Jack and Marjorie, played wonderfully by Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour. He tells them that he would like to take her on a weekend to Oxford, where he will meet his good friend C.S. Lewis. The ease with which David lies to her parents is the first sign that something may not be entirely on the level.

At one point David has to do an errand, and we see him moving a large, lower-class back family into an apartment, and a concerned old lady watching from the window above. They go to Oxford and make casual conversation about how dowdy all the students are. On the way back, they spot a house for sale and David and Peter go inside, forbidding Jenny to enter. While they’re gone, Helen explains “They find something sometimes, and then we have to leave rather quickly.” So it is now, as the guys come out with an antique map they’ve stolen, and make off with it. Jenny protests, and David justifies himself that the woman didn’t even know how valuable it was. His other sideline business is moving black families into apartments, and snapping up the old ladies’ apartments as they move out.

David wants to take Jenny to Paris, which she is obsessed with. She starts taking orders from her classmates for Chanel No. 5 and her affair becomes well-known throughout the school. She has a dowdy teacher that admires her smarts and looks forward to her academic future, Ms. Stubbs, played by Olivia Williams, always a welcome presence—unless you’re watching her in The Postman. Ms. Stubbs is very concerned, and her affair becomes the business of the headmistress, delightfully played by Emma Thompson. She says “Sometimes girls at this school have lost an important part of themselves—perhaps the most important part—while at this school, and when they do they find there is no longer a place at this school for them.” And around now an important new thread gains prominence in the story: That no one in Jenny’s world is able to explain to her why education is so important. Here she is attending auctions of artworks and traveling and listening to classical music, an most importantly, not turning into a sexless frump like her teachers. And the truth is that the options for women at that time are not that great [“You could also enter the civil service,” Thompson suggests], and there’s no way to convince Jenny that going to Oxford would not be dooming herself to a dull life of dowdiness.

So Jenny is going to Paris. In advance, she takes orders for Chanel No. 5 and other such items from the other girls. Before she goes, Miss Stubbs urges her “Go to Oxford no matter what happens.” Jenny of course has a wonderful time in Paris, loses her virginity, and comes back with a gift of Chanel No. 5 for Miss Stubbs. She refuses to accept.

Now the ending is both familiar and surprising, and if you’re going to see the movie, which you should, you might want to skip to the end of the spoilers.

David proposes. She tells her parents, and her father says what may be the most appalling line in the film: “Look at it this way—you wouldn’t have to go to Oxford after all.” Jenny agrees, and is soon showing off her ring to her classmates. When Miss Stubbs objects, Jenny says “half the girls in this room are wearing jewelry,” and Stubbs counters: “But not all their jewelry is going to ruin their lives.” Soon it’s another visit to the headmistress and Jenny is expelled. She doesn’t care—she doesn’t want to become a dowdy old maid anyway.

David is taking Jenny and her parents out to dinner when he has to stop somewhere. Jenny absently pulls a bunch of letters from his glove compartment and finds, surprise, that he’s already married. Another surprise: He and his wife live right around the block! Jenny insists that he tell her parents, but he wimps out and vanishes. Then, in a quietly devastating scene, she goes around and meets the wife, who has a small child in tow. She quickly learns that she is just the latest in a long series of girls David has picked up and dropped, and “at least she doesn’t have a baby.” When she goes back to beg to repeat her last year of school, she says to the headmistress “I suppose you think I am a ruined woman” to which Thompson replies: “You’re not a woman.” I will leave the last tiny bit for you to discover.

This is an excellent example of how a very familiar story can be made fresh and vivid through good writing, smart direction and excellent performances. We’ve all heard this story a million times before, yet here it’s alive and vivid and has you on the edge of your seat. I don’t know how many of the piquant lines quoted here are lifted directly from the memoir, all I know is that this movie has a great deal of memorable, meaning-packed dialogue. It is not showily directed, yet the frames are beautiful and colorful, and the entire thing looks fantastic. And all of the performances find little ways of bringing their characters out of the realm of the familiar and make them all real, distinct people.

It has now been a few weeks since I saw this movie, and it still lingers in my mind as a wholly pleasant experience. Just a quiet, insightful, vivid and beautiful little movie.

Should you watch it: 

You sure should. This is a great one to take parents and relatives to, by the way, where you can see a somewhat indie movie that even more mainstream tastes will enjoy.