Friday, October 16, 2009

an education in willful denial

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
David (Sarsgaard) indulges Jenny (Mulligan) in the illusion of romance. She's wised up, not educated.


Ben said...

Great essay, Joe. I saw the film and had a different (typical) take on it, but now I have nothing to add. You hit on something that I've read in none of the reviews so far.

Sherrie S. said...

hmmm... I wanted to see it and now maybe I don't..

Jamie said...

I guess the Sarsgaard character is Jewish because this is a true story and the real David was indeed Jewish, an associate of the notorious slum landlord Peter Rachman.

Wouldn't the real anti-semitism have been to pretend that David wasn't Jewish?

joe baltake said...

Yes, Jamie, a colleague of mine noted that the film is based on a memoir and that the real David was Jewish - or, at least, presented that way in the book. Nevertheless, that information/fact has a different impact when woven into the structurre of a narrative. Believe me, on screen, it seems utterly gratuitous. -J

Annie said...

I think you're wrong about the references to Judaism.
The story is as much about Jenny's coming of age as the coming of an age. This is London before it started swinging and what referencing anti semitism in a narrative setting achieves is to show how institutionalised racism was. It shows that the post WWII hypersensitivity to anything that could be perceived as anti semitic did not begin immediately after the Holocaust. Far from it.
It serves too to show too that her parents, also racist at the beginning, were willing to overcome all kinds of prejudices in the all consuming passion to marry her off which in turn strengthens the dilemma which Jenny was in.
To reference anti-semitism is not the same as being anti semitic.

joe baltake said...


As I said, my problem is not with the film's references (or depictions of) anti-Semitism, but with the perception put out that it condones this form of prejudice. The movie seems to go out of its way to justify Thompson's anti-Semitic outburst.

annie said...

Sorry Joe,
I just don't agree that it does. It uses her racism as a context but I fail to see where it condones her POV.

joe baltake said...

Annie- You know, sometimes great minds don't think alike. -J

joe baltake said...

Hi, Heloise-

First off, I, too, like Peter Sarsgaard. Wonderful actor - and he's actually pretty terrific in this film.

Secondly, perhaps I sound more harsh on "My Education" that I really am. It's just that it is one of the films lately that I've really been looking forward to, and for me, it was a thudding disappointment - admittedly, largely because of the anti-Semitism that seems to permeate it, botn on its surface and subliminally.

Third, to get personal, my mother was Jewish and my father was Catholic and I was raised Catholic. As a result, I am lapsed, an agnostic bordering on atheism. Too much info?

Finally, yes, I most certainly would have had the same negative reaction if the Peter character were black or Islam or even Catholic.

Again, my problem isn't with Emma Thompson's anti-Semitic rant but with my feeling that the film seems to justify it by going out of its way to paint Peter as a money-grubbing crook (and romantic lout).

But, then, I'm an equal opportunity cynic.


Chuck said...

Hi, Just saw the film and I think you are incredibly off base in just about every way. As others point out -- the anti-semitic character(s) are pointedly made to look foolish. The Jewishness is somewhat important b/c the David character is on the outskirts in part b/c he is Jewish -- they weren't accepted at Oxford. That's a point of the film that went way over your head. Also -- there was always a dark undercurrent as soon as she met David -- it's not as if the movie was a light, whimsical lark that suddenly got a bit dark -- it was there the whole time. I'm astounded at how much you missed in this movie.

Scott said...

I saw the movie last night and don't think it was was anti-Semitic. The gentile anti-Semitic characters (Emma Thompson) were made to seem small-minded and ridiculous. The complicated villain was, it is true, Jewish and perhaps villainous in ways that are more likely to be Jewish or at least reflecting some traits of a middle-man minority (Chinese in SE Asia, Armenian, etc.) --requiring keen intelligence, a certain lack of social rootedness, readiness to exploit new situations (the real estate block-busting, taking advantage of traditional British racism). And it very very rare, almost unprecedented, to see a Jewish villain in modern Western cinema, for both understandable historical reasons and because much of Hollywood is Jewish, and might be overly protective on that score. So "An Education" is highly unusual for portraying a Jewish villain. But the film makes not the slightest nod towards making him "representative" of Jews as a whole, -- he is clearly sui generis. And again, the anti-Semitic characters are made to seem stupid and small-minded.

royjonesfan said...

I don't think a poster's ethnicity is relevant for a discussion. I think the competition you are trying to raise between Jews and "brown and black people" is disgusting and implicity racist. Also, if you think anti-semitism is a recent phenomenon as your last sentence seems to suggest, let me suggest for you a history book.

I thought the movie was anti-semitic because of how over the top the stereotypical features of the Jew were. The producers may claim it was based on a true story but I have never met such a loathesome Jewish strawman which seems to embody every dishonorable trait one can think of. He was a pervert in the bedroom, in many ways disrupting the pure British youth in the same vain as a Fagan character. He was a glib liar, a thief, an adulterer, a man who invokes the first person plural to speak about the tribe in unflattering ways ("we aren't as clever as you are"). The movie made me sick and quite frankly I think it should be called Fagan 2.0. What's hilarious is that people think they can keep inventing the same character with creative little pretexts and people won't notice.

joe baltake said...

David's use of the word Schwarzes relatively early in the film makes it clear what his character is. That is a harshly derogatory word.

Anonymous said...

I am deeply disturbed by this film's unabashed anti-Semitic agenda. I just can't believe that so many people, especially film critics, don't see it. So what if it was based on a true story recorded in a memoir by Lynn Barber? I haven't read Barber's book, but if it's anti-Semitic as well (which I doubt is the case) – does that justify this screenplay making it to the screen?

The screenplay had nothing to gain with David's character being Jewish. If the intent was to put his character on the fringes (relevant for 1960s Britain) then all that was necessary was to give him a foreign accent or something. And perhaps even make him Jewish – but not insinuate that his ethnicity was at the root of his perversity.

The anti-Semitic ranting of the head mistress and the father were never really rebutted, contrary to many comments I have read, because a) Jenny never really comes to his defence and b) the movie itself proves that the headmistress was right while the father, who overcame his anti anti-Semitism, got screwed.

The film teaches us that David is a seductive crook, a cradle robber, a pervert (banana?! Minnie?! Can I see them?!), an adulterer and unworthy father (and his Jewess wife seems to be OK with this), a widow swindler (the map scene), robs old ladies, a racist (schwartzes is the yiddish equivalent to niggers), is anti-education but loves to exploit and reap the pleasures of high culture... man, this guy is the scum of the earth, he's got all the right stuff, oh, and did I forgot to mention - he's a Jew, he's a Jew, he's a Jew - and his whole tribe is the just like him (as David professes in the film - this is how we are - we're not as educated as you...) I mean I never saw a character’s ethnicity hammered at the viewer to this extent when in truth his ethnicity was completely irrelevant to the film – unless someone thought it wasn’t.

In a word - this film is nothing short of propaganda and hate. Is the critics’ silence over this signaling a vendetta with Hollywood which is too Jewish for anyone to bear.

Dhalgren said...

I have to agree with Annie. David's Jewishness is not judged by the writer - it is judged by the mainly secular British characters.

Here's an exercise - see what Mike Leigh (acclaimed Jewish British director) has to say about this. He's reachable. He has portrayed Jewish characters in his films (albeit briefly) who are pre-judged and looked upon as shady just as David is in this film.

To call this movie anti semitic propaganda is quite a stretch, and ignores that the film is trying to be accurate in its portrayal of London in the early 1960s.

sussmang said...

I believe several of the previous comments that deny the anti-semitic content of the film are either not understanding the historical negative stereotypes freshly represented in the character David or simply do not understand how the film will play to people who are already anti-semitic. What is deeply disturbing is its close connection to Nazi propaganda in which Jews were seen to corrupt the purity of the Aryan people (here, the English, including the innocence of a young girl). The father of Jenny acts like a somewhat harmless anti-semite, but in the end his temporary seduction by the Jew's "magical powers" (a classic hateful image of Jews) is corrected. The family is reunified and Jenny finds her place as a "proper" English girl with the disappearance of the corrupting force of the lying, corrupt, manipulative, con-artist, alien Jew. I found that message profoundly and rather shockingly anti-semitic without question.
Gerry S.

Gerry S. said...

I believe several of the previous comments that deny the anti-semitic content of the film are either not understanding the historical negative stereotypes freshly represented in the character David or simply do not understand how the film will play to people who are already anti-semitic. What is deeply disturbing is its close connection to Nazi propaganda in which Jews were seen to corrupt the purity of the Aryan people (here, the English, including the innocence of a young girl). The father of Jenny acts like a somewhat harmless anti-semite, but in the end his temporary seduction by the Jew's "magical powers" (a classic hateful image of Jews) is corrected. The family is reunified and Jenny finds her place as a "proper" English girl with the disappearance of the corrupting force of the lying, corrupt, manipulative, con-artist, alien Jew. I found that message profoundly and rather shockingly anti-semitic without question.

Heloise said...


You don't know Heloise obviously from your post. I read books on Jews and the holocaust for fun. I have forgotten more about Jewish history than you will ever know.

It's all about race my friend. People are blogging and calling the new Miss America a GD N already.

You need to wake up.


The Trough

Alicia Ruddy Zurlo said...

I just saw the film and completely agree with Joe in that it seemed anti-semetic in its portrayal of David. I couldn't figure out why the character had to be Jewish. It could have been any older, lying, cheating, greedy man- without mentioning race or religion. There just wasn't any convincing reason to have David be Jewish other than to make Jews look bad. Jews were further maligned by comparing David's lifestyle to the "hard working, morally ethical" society of Jenny's family and school teachers. Assigning negative stereotypical characteristics to David only served to reinforce existing prejudices. While I enjoyed the acting and the story line, the anti- Jewish sentiment ruined it for me.

Russell said...

agree totally that the film is anti semitism. The charector is a class Fagen charector, evil a theif and bring all anti semitic stereotypes to light.
He doesn't seem to have time to kill Jesus or use the blood of Christians to make matzah but pretty much all other bases are covered.
Hate for Jews is as American as canned Spam; look at the success of The Passion! And people are going to see Edge of Darkness in spite of Gibsons continued hatespeach.
Wake up people, this is a film Hilter would have loved. And would have approved of very much.

Nikola said...

I really didn't think that the film was anti-Semitic. Would this mean that if you had an essentially negative character in a movie, he would have to be of unknown nationality/race/religion?

What if he was American? Indian? Black? Orthodox Christian? I think certain reviews I have read on this movie are being written very selectively. I have seen so many movies, for instance, where Serbs are treated as terrorists extraordinaire, yet no one seems to mind. It's a little ridiculous.

Unknown said...

I'm Jewish and I felt really disturbed after seeing the film, even though I'm usually not very sensitive about serving up jewish clichees, but this is something different. the film is not making fun of it, the fact that david is jewish is just mentioned in passing and the anti-semitic rants are never followed by a counter reatction, the film just leaves it at that. I've seen anti jewish propaganda films in my uni courses and I don't want to sound hysterical, but they shockingly had quite some similarities with "an edication"...

James D said...

BRAVO!!! The only kind of Education I received from this movie was one in gross anti-semitism. Yes... Yes... The movies does have its charm and that is really its most poignant aspect. The subttleness by which the whole message is put forth. And clearly that is indeed the main message of this otherwise naive and very bland story. And Emma Thompson? She is obviously a very well respected actress so why would she have to play that insignificant part? Well simply because it was quite significant in emphasizing the main message of the movie: don't trust Jews, even those who might seem charming and succesfull. Just because an actress of her standing is willing to state matter of factly that "Jews killed Jesus" or "Even though they did go though hell during the holocaust...". Ultimately the movie has one simple purpose other than to sell tickets: to show Jews and a very unfavorable and damaging light. And I would not be at all surprised if Mr. Mel Gibson had his hand involved in some suttle way in funding or promoting this despicable negative propaganda.

piyali said...

Hi. I just saw An Education. I am an Indian living in Mumbai. This comment comes completely unbiased as we have had no anit-semite history here. I agree with everything Anne and Heloise said. Also, I was thinking can no film have a negative Jewish character EVER without this kind of a "omigod, director/writer/film's anti-semite" reaction?

Astriaicow said...

regarding to the anti-semitism thing, I think it could go both ways. I think this film probably did not intend to purposely portraying Jews to be a certain way, but attempting to be realistic. From personal experience, I was once dating this Iranian guy, and my parents have some stereotypes toward Iranians, particular my mom, who basically told me all the "bad" stereotypical traits Iranians have, and I was telling my mom not to discriminate. But I found out in the end, this guy fitted absolutely perfectly with everything my mom said about Iranians (safe to say we broke up). Of course I still don't believe all, or even most of Iranians will be like this but just saying sometimes stereotypes can have some truths to them in real life, however little. For the sake of a film, perhaps it should've been more sensitive about it. But it doesn't mean that the writers/authors of the story are really anti-semitists, maybe they are just telling a story from their own real-life experience.

Tom said...

Unabashedly anti-Semitic. Very disturbing.

jean-luc said...

Il me semble que ce film peut clairement être considéré comme un message antisémite, digne de la propagande d'avant guerre, que l'on pourrait résumer de la manière suivante :

- le juif aime l'argent, en a et le montre
- il le gagne malhonnetement
- il est manipulateur et trompe nos familles bien pensantes pourtant pretes à l'accueillir
- il est lâche en refusant d'avouer ses méfaits
- il souille nos enfants mineurs
- les membres de sa famille sont complices de son immoralité (sa femme)
- mieux vaut faire comme s'il n'avait jamais existé (lorsqu'elle considère à la fin du film qu'il s'agira de son premier voyage à paris)

C'est incroyable et j'avoue être inquiet qu'il ne soulève pas une véritable levée de boucliers.

DJKuulA said...

The David character, despite being intelligent and resourceful, is an outsider living on the fringes of society. If anything, the casual anti-Semitism displayed by the decidedly non-fringe characters serves to explain to some extent why he lives the way he does. (Note also how he turns the ingrained bigotry of the masses to his financial advantage.) Was it key to the story? Maybe not. But it adds depth to a major character -- and, more importantly, its pervasiveness is part of the "education" that Jenny receives. She's certainly heard that stuff before, but has she ever given it much thought?

Yeah, he's a shady figure and a corrupting influence. But that isn't presented as an aspect of his Judaism.

Opie said...

The movie is blatantly anti semitic. I am willing to give the makers the benefit of doubt of them realizing this themselves but I am pretty convinced it's producers -the BBC- were not.
But the most disturbing is the fact that it seems some viewers DID notice but very few critics and the majority of viewers did not. To me it just proves that anti semitism is alive and well. Just waiting for the next time things get really bad and society is in need of scapegoats again.

Joanna said...

Whether this film is based on fact or not..the fact is...racially negative stereotypes against minorities are very dangerous...especially when there are very few opposing sterotypes offered up by the media..
(I dare you to mention films which characterises a Jewish person as wholly favourable and have that positive nature linked in the same way to their Jewishness..The fact it doesn't happen is the issue - not whether the facts in this case are true or not...This film will cause hate.. end of.

Steve in Sacramento said...

Hi Joe, I haven't read all the comments here, only the first ten or so, so I may be repeating something someone else has already said. I too picked up on the *possibility* of anti-Semitism. But I categorically disagree with you that the film was justifying or condoning Emma Thompson's anti-Semitic rant. If anything, her character (significantly unsympathetic, in my opinion, and almost undoubtedly intended as such) only exposes the perniciousness of racism in general, and ignorant anti-Semitism in particular. I agree that it was at least problematic to make David Jewish (or to make a point of it), but the Thompson character (and Alfred Molina's to some extent) and her rant seem to me to be used to put the *lie* to anti-Semitism, if anything, and to make sure we know that we are not to conclude an anti-Semitic agenda just because the "bad guy" happens to be Jewish. I guess one could argue that this merely covers over a latent anti-Semitism, but that's not how I (non-Jewish, for clarification) experienced the movie. Either way, thanks for the post, it's a worthwhile conversation.

joe baltake said...

Steve! You bring up an excellent point. Perhaps there are nuances in the film that I missed or overlooked but that you observed. I'll have to revisit it again one of these days. Thanks!

Tom said...

This movie aired last night (Connecticut PBS) and I enjoyed watching it, but it did really strike me as having an anti-Semitic undercurrent. I found this website simply because I googled "'An Education' movie anti-Semitic" to see if others had the same observation. Yup, the male lead plays into so many anti-Semitic tropes (conman, deflowerer of Christian virgins, liar, money focused, social climber...), and at the end of the day there was no reason for him to be cast as Jewish anyhow. The decision to make him Jewish simply feels unnecessary and gratuitous. And yes, I understand that the story is supposed to be based on one person's memoir, but there are millions of stories in this world that cast all groups sometimes in positive light and sometimes in negative light -- and the ultimate question is why do we repeat versions of some and not others? It's like the person who is mugged several times by white criminals and then is mugged once by a racial minority. So often it is only the racial minority version that gets retold (true, but misleading).

joe baltake said...

Tom- Your astute analogy nails the deep-seated issue that I have with this film. -J