The Beatles aren't in "An Education," but you can hear their high-heeled boots clicking around every corner. The time is the very early '60s, the place is London, the era is - well, it really wasn't quite an era: The postwar period was over; the Mods and Rockers were in their larval stages; the Profumo Affair was in play but not yet a scandal; and there was yet to be a Cuban Missile Crisis.
"The '60s weren't really swinging in 1962," says one of the movie's stars, Rosamund Pike. It was, in a word, boring. Perfect circumstances under which a young girl might do something outrageous.
Directed by Lone Sherfig ("Italian for Beginners") and starring Carey Mulligan ("Pride and Prejudice," Broadway's "The Seagull") and Peter Sarsgaard, "An Education" - which opens Friday in Manhattan and wider next month - is the coming-of-age story with a twist. Like the very American "Mad Men," it's set in that uneasy lull between cultural explosions (Elvis and the Fab Four). It's a feminist story that predates feminism (and the Pill).
London is gray, London is dull, and 16-year-old Jenny (Mulligan) is living with parents (Alfred Molina, Cara Seymour) for whom fun equals waste (she might have inspired The Beatles' "She's Leaving Home"). When the sweetly charming, wealthy, 40-ish David (Sarsgaard) sweeps into her life, it's as if he opened a door in sepia-toned Kansas and invited Jenny to step into Technicolor Emerald City.
The older man-younger woman equation has been a staple of the movies as long as screen actors have been aging. Sometimes, it's been the result of actorly ego or box-office strategy (Cary Grant, Woody Allen), but there's also been an obliviousness about age disparity that, in some instances, boggles the modern mind - "Love in the Afternoon" (1957), starring a girlish Audrey Hepburn and a grizzled Gary Cooper, seems positively ghoulish at this point. But the difference in years between Jenny and David seems almost less important in the context of "An Education" - from a memoir by Lynn Barber and a screenplay by Nick Hornby ("About a Boy") - than the worldviews represented by two people on opposite sides of an experiential divide.
Recapturing his youth
Jenny is one of the better students at her all-girls secondary school, and has definite plans to attend Oxford. David is Jewish in '60s England, the Vietnam War isn't far away, there's sort of a gray world of rationing that's receding, but "as Nick says, this movie is closer to 1945 than it is to 1964," Sarsgaard said. "My feeling with this guy was that he sort of missed his youth because he was forced to have lots of obligations and responsibilities and really fight to survive in an environment that was a little bit hostile to him. I think Jenny provides an opportunity to relive feelings like first love, which he probably missed."
The affair, he says, "isn't so much about sex with someone who's 16 as much as wanting to be 16."
Director Sherfig noted, "One of the things you look at when you do period is whether it's relevant now, and could it be moved to the present." She acknowledged that it's harder to make period films emotional. "You can make them informative and beautiful, but there's a hidden barrier between the character and the audience when a film is not contemporary."
Even though Jenny's story is perfectly reflected in her history and city ("London's on the cusp," Pike said, "and Jenny's on the cusp"), her story doesn't lack in moral relevance: Jenny abandons her Oxford plans when David offers an easier and more exciting life than any she might create for herself, at least for many years. She disappoints her favorite teacher (Olivia Williams) and headmistress (Emma Thompson), but she has to educate herself in the end. It's a timeless parable, albeit one locked into a specific time.
"You say ' '60s film' and people think, 'Oh, wow, Flower Power and smoking weed,' " Mulligan said. "But no, this is just before it got interesting. I'm 24 now, I was 22 when I shot this, and I don't know if 16-year-olds are vastly different from 22-year-olds. I think she's really intelligent, wise beyond her years and an only child, which, I think, makes people stronger. I just think she was rescued from a very dull life."
Who needs brains?
Jenny's antithesis in "An Education" is Helen (Pike), girlfriend of David's friend Danny and a beautiful, vacuous woman who looks at the educated Jenny as if she were an alien. "She's sort of relentlessly good-humored," Pike said of Helen, "and what she lacks in brain power she makes up for in kind of good humor - she's superficial in the loveliest way. I think one still meets girls like that: They've decided they're happy with the lot they've got; they're not ambitious beyond where they are, and they're just not going to upset the status quo."
Helen is someone who doesn't want an education, Sherfig said, "and doesn't need an education: She can have a very good life without one. But eventually it may catch up with her. If she loses her beauty, her stupidity could become a problem."
And that's certainly a story as relevant now as in 1962.
Growing up is hard to do in these movies
BY JOHN ANDERSON
Special to Newsday
'Coming-of-age" is a category that seems to fit every other movie that gets released - "Superbad" could qualify, so could "Hamlet." But the journey of Jenny in "An Education" is specifically that of a girl transitioning into womanhood and not necessarily finding it all it's cracked up to be. Likewise, the following films, which have covered the same terrain with a certain grace and don't always involve teenagers, or naifs.
SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS (1961) - Society says Deanie (Natalie Wood) and Bud (Warren Beatty) can't have sex, and it drives Deanie mad. The movie was directed by Elia Kazan and written by William ("Picnic") Inge.
MANHATTAN (1979) - Who, exactly, is coming of age is something of a question in what may well be Woody Allen's masterpiece. Twice-divorced, 42-year-old Isaac Davis is having a romance with 17-year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway). No one can ever imagine it's going to work, and you breathe a sigh of relief when she makes a narrow escape. Allen has made plenty of movies in which he's played opposite younger women, but the arrangement has never seemed so poignant.
GHOST WORLD (2001) - Cult fave directed by Terry ("Bad Santa") Zwigoff. Although it involves the ripening sensibilities of Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) and Enid (Thora Birch), who ends up in a fractious romantic relationship with the older, uber-nerdy Seymour (Steve Buscemi), the film is essentially about sensitive souls being cast adrift in a hostile world.