Friday, July 16, 2010

Film+Theology - An Education

Orientation to the film
One reviewer calls An Education a “beguiling little film that, with deceptive restraint and forthrightness, opens up worlds of roiling [disturbing], contradictory emotions” (Ann Hornaday, Washington Post). The “near perfect cinematic experience”, An Education, is a 2009 independent British coming of age drama film.

The film was directed by Danish born director Lone Scherfig who has only directed one other English-language film: the comedic drama Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself (2002) shot in Scotland. She co-wrote and directed the film.

British born Nick Hornby who has written novels and adapted them for the screen wrote the screenplay for An Education. To his credit are the films High Fidelity, About a Boy and Fever Pitch. Fever Pitch incidentally was in its prior form a story about an Englishman’s obsession with the Arsenal Football Club in London. It was later adapted in the US and Jimmy Fallon played an obsessive Red Sox fan.

In this case, Horby didn’t write the story however. It was adapted from Lynn Barber’s memoir of the same name. Barber is a journalist in London and published a ten-page memoir in the literary magazine Granta in the spring of 2003 about her two-year relationship as a 16-year Oxford University bound old school girl with a thirtysomething con-man named “Simon”.

Hornby’s screenplay is to a considerable degree true to the original memoir. The film is the product of a close collaboration between Scherfig and Hornby. In an interview Scherfig admits to “touching [the screenplay] less than I ever have anything I've worked with”. And she remarks about her role as director of this film:

[I]t was about being loyal and trusting that the story would be strong enough to carry a film. If you don't do that or think that way, you probably shouldn't direct something like this. Nick is extremely orderly. There are no set-ups that don't have payoffs; everything is there for a reason, or if it's not, it's really entertaining. That's quite a good reason, too. So it's not that I just didn't want to fix things. It's also because I didn't really feel I had a right to or reason to.

The story is set in the pre-Beatles era of the early 1960’s (1961 to be exact) in the sleepy London suburb of Twickenham. Jenny Millar (played by Carey Mulligan) is a 16-year-old student preparing for University in England’s version of a prep school. She is obsessed with things French and dreams of a sophisticated life beyond the overbearing protection of her father Jack (played by Alfred Molina) whose equally obsessed with his daughter learning Latin and getting into Oxford.

One rainy day, while walking home with her cello, Jenny meets David Goldman (Peter Saargard). Her life is never the same. David introduces her to the sophisticated life she dreamed of and even after realizing his money comes by way of shady business she willingly continues to enjoy the life that he offers her.

Without giving more away, she gains an education in life that ultimately compliments her bookish education.

Here’s what Lynn Barber wrote of her experience on which the film is based:

What did I get from Simon? An Education – the thing my parents always wanted me to have. I learned a lot in my two years with Simon. I learned about expensive restaurants and luxury hotels and foreign travel, I learned about antiques and Bergman films and classical music. All this was useful when I went to Oxford – I could read a menu, I could recognize a fingerbowl, I could follow an opera. I was not a complete hick. But actually there was a much bigger bonus than that. My experience with Simon entirely cured my craving for sophistication. By the time I got to Oxford, I wanted nothing more than to meet kind, decent, straightforward boys my own age, no matter if they were gauche or virgins. I would marry one eventually and stay married all my life and for that, I suppose, I have Simon to thank.

Spiritual themes
Life Education. The film asserts that to truly learn, one must experience things personally. There are lessons that books just can’t teach you and these lessons are the most important ones. Jenny signs up willingly for the seminar in real life David offers her. She willingly embraces the curriculum of art galleries, the opera, night clubs, race tracks and international travel. What could be (perhaps should be) a stomach curling story of a sexual predator is turned into a story of a coming of age by the very able screen writer and director. And all of this is supported by Jenny’s parents and particularly her father who is, in the end, less determined that she go to Oxford than he is that she (and he) achieve an upgrade in social class.

So as you watch the film think about the education Jenny receives through her relationship with David. How does the perspective of personal experience jive with the biblical worldview?

Sexual revolution of the 1960’s. The film asserts that the radical societal changes of the 1960’s (often referred to as the “Sexual Revolution”) had positive elements and, all in all, made a positive contribution to the maturing western world. The most significant element of the changes, as illustrated in the film, was the dramatic shift away from traditional values. This change affected sexuality and sexual behavior, birthed feminism and women’s rights and was the cultural condition for the passage of the civil rights legislation.

The sexual revolution made personal freedom and the quest to find “one’s self” outside of what had been traditionally elements of adult identity—academic education, marriage and family—an obsession.

Jenny’s coming of age story is a symbol for the coming of age of the culture. The message is essentially: “Ok there were some excesses and not all aspects of it were positive, but generally we are better off having lived through it.”

To many, the sexual revolution of the 60’s paved the way for the progress of the 80’s, 90’s, 00’s and beyond.

As you watch the very stylized presentation of the era, think about what contributions the societal changes made both positively and negatively.

The seduction of sophistication. One of the memorable lines in the film is Jenny’s comment that she wants to spend time with “People who know lots about lots”. This line and the story touches on a mystery of adolescence. In the quest for autonomy and the desire to have the trappings of adulthood, one of adolescence’s strongest impulses is sophistication.

As the film shows, there is something seductive about the freedom of adulthood. This sophistication is often expressed as the fantasy of relationship with older people.

As you watch the film thing about why sophistication is so seductive. What does a biblical worldview offer by way of critique of this fantasy?

“Action is character”. The film asserts at one point explicitly and throughout implicitly that what is important is not one’s words but one’s actions when it comes to knowing who a person really is.

The negative consequences (or lack of) from our past mistakes. The film presents Jenny’s exploits with David having certain consequences. Some of these are even seen as positive. However, in the end she is not all that worst for ware as she achieves her dream of going to Oxford after all. What’s more, she’s all she more mature with a wide breadth of life experience.

Barber herself however noted the negative consequences of her experience when she wrote:

But there were other lessons Simon taught me that I regret learning. I learned not to trust people; I learned not to believe what they say but watch what they do; I learned to suspect that anyone and everyone is capable of “living a lie”. I came to believe that other people – even when you think you know them well – are ultimately unknowable. Learning all this was a good basis for my subsequent career as an interviewer, but not, I think, for life. It made me too wary, too cautious, too ungiving. I was damaged by my education.

About this lack of real consequences, one reviewer commented,

In the film’s historical view Jenny is a generational pioneer, and Ms. Scherfig and Mr. Hornby make some effort to reckon the costs of her exploration as well as the thrills. Tears do flow after the Champagne is all drunk. But the filmmakers themselves seem too intoxicated by the mystique of the period to take full account of the sad, bleak aspects of the story they have to tell. At crucial moments the movie recoils from its own implications and finds a default tone of wry comedy when something more stringent and difficult is called for . . . It’s a pleasure—which I don’t mean as a compliment (A. O. Scott, NY Times).


John Thomson said...

Very helpful blog Joel.

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