The first impression made by Lone Scherfig's "An Education" is that it is a deft throwback to Britain's serious comedies from its Carnaby St. era - you know, Silvio Narizzano's "Georgy Girl" (1966) and Desmond Davis' "Smashing Time" (1967) - with Peter Sarsgaard doing a light, uncanny riff on the irresistible cad/rascal/scamp (pick your own word) that the late Alan Bates routinely played during that period.
Initially, it's fine.
But then its story kicks in. The plotline is familiar to any art-house afficionado who has been exposed to the trailer for the past couple of months: A wonderful 24-year-old actress named Carey Mulligan plays a precocious, a tad pretentious but extremely likable 16-year-old named Jenny who plays the cello in her school orchestra and is light years ahead of the boys her age - and also her parents (Cara Seymour and Alfred Molina), for that matter. The sophistication she seems to studiously affect is actually the real thing. Jenny has only two things on her current agenda - to keep her virginity until she is 17 and to get into Oxford.
Then she meets the big-talking David (Sarsgaard, commanding a subtle British accent here), an older man who sweeps her off her feet and exposes her to the good life. In what amounts to a shameless teen fantasy, Jenny's parents (who are slightly opportunistic, at least her father is) actually approve of David and endorse the relationship. So far, so good. Well, sort of. But then, in what seems like a gratuitious touch, David tosses off the fact that he's Jewish. Then, a scene or two later, he admits that he's something of a crook - a scam artist with expensive tastes to feed - and he rationalizes his penchant for ripping off people. As a real-estate player, he purposely places black families in apartments and condos in order to scare off other tenants/owners, an underhanded way to get their property. "Schwarzes have to live somewhere," he shrugs.
And exactly why did David have to be Jewish? Hmmmm.
Alas, "An Education" is now at a point of no return.
A caring teacher (Olivia Williams, drabbed down way too much) is worried that Jenny might abandon Oxford for David - that he is ruining her life. The school's headmistress (Emma Thompson), meanwhile, is turned off by David's Judaism and, in a rant, reminds Jenny that his people murdered Christ. Less troubling than her intolerance is the film's curious attempt to justify her anti-Semitism by continuing to indict the now wildly unappealing David, revealing each of his secrets/skeletons, one by one.
When Jenny sees entrepreneur David escorting a black family into an apartment building and asks about it, he shrugs, "Schwarzes have to live somewhere."
Schwarzes is not a nice word.
And so, a film that starts out as a darkly affable little affair quickly degenerates unnecesssarily when its heroine's trust is violated and the ethnicity of her lover is unnecessarily made a crucial part in her betrayal.
Note in Passing: Many thanks to Irina Bragin, for the mention in her insightful piece, "British Film Gives ‘An Education’ in Anti-Semitism," written for JewishJournal.com.
David (Sarsgaard) indulges Jenny (Mulligan) in the illusion of romance. She's wised up, not educated.