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The English Lesson

An Education teaches us that hype can be true (Carey Mulligan is charming!) and still just hype.


If there’s one thing that can pack an art-house cinema, it’s the prospect of watching a pretty English teenager deflowered by a predatory older man, the whole dramatic striptease framed as an “educational experience.” Encourage the press to proclaim the leading actress the new Audrey Hepburn and the come-on is, as the Brits like to say, “Brilliant!” An Education introduces Carey Mulligan as Jenny, a middle-class 16-year-old who dreams of “reading English” at Oxford. It’s 1961, and Jenny is encouraged to the point of fanaticism by her father (Alfred Molina), who regards his only child as the family’s sole hope of climbing a rung on the social ladder. Smoking Gauloises and dropping the odd French phrase, the comely teen is primed to climb. Enter thirtyish Jewish fancy-pants David (Peter Sarsgaard), who gives her a lift in a downpour and is soon gushing, “There’s so much I want you to see!” (Fill in your own rejoinder.) Warned by her prim English teacher (Olivia Williams) of the perils of an alliance with an older man, Jenny increasingly leans toward worldly experience over musty books. It’s touching when she draws the exact wrong lessons from her reading: Yes, the existentialists believe character is defined through action, but trading school for travel and leisure is not what Camus had in mind.

As scripted by Nick Hornby from a memoir by Lynn Barber, the melodrama is not as crude as it first appears. Although David is a transparent liar, there are hints that on some level he actually believes his own effusions, that he wants more than to get into a virgin’s knickers. Jenny’s prospects in that time and place are constricted, and David might offer a kind of emancipation. Meanwhile, the advocates for school—among them Emma Thompson’s snobbish headmistress—inspire little but cynicism.

For all its original touches, though, An Education follows a conventional trajectory. We watch Jenny ignore obvious clues and make dumb mistakes and wait for her eyes to be opened. Lone Scherfig’s direction is glum. We’re so clued in to what’s really going on that we never share Jenny’s authentic excitement at being introduced to art, music, and exotic locales. The story’s most obvious lesson is: Beware of Jews bearing flowers, especially when they look like John Malkovich in Dangerous Liaisons. (Sarsgaard did a wicked Malkovich parody as the actor’s son in The Man in the Iron Mask, but it’s hard to shake off their similar calculating affect.)

How is our alleged Audrey Hepburn? Not very Hepburnesque (the essence of which is buoyancy, enchantment), but charmingly open all the same. At moments, she’s little-girlish: When she smiles, her whole face smiles with her. Other times, she strikes believably grown-up poses—enough to convince you Jenny is not just a poseur, that she’s ready to move on. She gives An Education it’s only real suspense: Will someone like Jenny—who’s right on the border between a naïf and a sophisticate, between girlhood and womanhood—have the self-possession to recover from being “ruined”?

Corporate greedheads can see Michael Moore lumbering toward them from miles away, but the politically progressive pranksters the Yes Men—back in their second film, the outrageously entertaining The Yes Men Fix the World—are clean-cut fellows who slip right into the business milieu. Like Sacha Baron Cohen, they specialize in gulling the unsuspecting, but their agenda isn’t rooted in humiliation. Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno are earnest crusaders with two ends. The first is to take what they see as the capitalist credo (profit over human life), reduce it—in the manner of Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”—to its despicable essence, and watch as rows of convention-going free-marketers nod at their refreshingly inhumane proposals. The second—more exhilarating—is to impersonate honchos and behave as they think corporations, in an ideal world, would. Their fake capitalists proclaim, “To hell with what’s profitable, let’s do what’s right!”—and watch the markets react with horror.

The movie is episodic: six pranks and their aftermaths, plus interviews with leading Milton Friedman disciples. Five of the six are a hoot. The one that’s lame is the idea of Exxon execs’ touting an endlessly renewable energy source made from human corpses. (Even in a dystopic future, Soylent Green only sold because no one knew it was people.) The most astounding by far is when Bichlbaum goes on the BBC as a spokesman for Dow on the anniversary of the Bhopal catastrophe to announce that the chemical giant (which acquired Union Carbide) will make full restitution to the 100,000 or so victims who are permanently disabled. A close second is when he shares the stage with bombastic New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin and declares HUD’s commitment to save a public-housing project that had been, post-Katrina, inexplicably turned over to private developers.

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