An Education (2010) was met with great fanfare and outstanding reviews upon its release, launching the career of its star Carey Mulligan. But An Education isn’t really anything all that new. Compare An Education to the “kitchen sink” dramas of Lindsay Anderson, Karl Reisz and Tony Richardson and you’ll find more similarities than differences.
For instance, Saturday Night And Sunday Morning (1960) deals in the same working class milieu of Britain in the early sixties. Even the film’s main character Arthur (Albert Finney) is driven by the same desires as Carey Mulligan’s Jenny. Both characters emphasize “fun” as the only escape from the “dead” lives their parents live. Even the phrasing is the same. Early in Saturday Night And Sunday Morning Arthur, in voice-over, observes that he is the only one who knows what to do with his wages, “have fun”. Later in the film, Arthur says of his parents “that they are dead from the shoulders up”. The difference here is in the actions these characters take to escape their bleak and routine existence. Jenny escapes into her affair with David (Peter Sarsgaard) while Arthur resorts to womanizing and drinking.
Though An Education takes its audience with its characters to locations beyond the brick row homes of Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, it fails to ever really capture the atmosphere and tone of its locations. Karl Reisz painstakingly populates his film with “real” faces and peripheral incidents that re-enforce Nottingham’s presence as almost its own character within the film. Perhaps this is due to Reisz admiration of the Italian Neo-Realists, or the lengths to which producer Tony Richardson was committed to total portraiture. Regardless, director Lone Scheberg prefers to populate An Education with attractive faces (Olivia Williams, Emma Thompson) and picturesque locations that allow his film to be more escapist than confrontational as Reisz does.
The biggest difference is the conclusion of these films. Saturday Night And Sunday Morning ends with Arthur forfeiting his fun loving nightlife to join the domestic bliss that is expected of a man in his position by marrying his sweetheart (Shirley Anne Field). An Education proposes a happier ending in which Jenny recovers from her set backs and manages to achieve her original goal of going to Oxford. The difference here is fundamentally linked to the desires of not so much the filmmakers, but of the audience. Today, audiences prefer happy endings to bleak ones, so a happy ending means better ticket sales. However, the choice for better ticket sales prevents An Education from becoming as poignant or close to reality as Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, which greatly inhibits any meaningful longevity.
Thus, the question becomes, why did critics and audiences make such a big deal over An Education? For starters, An Education tapped into the popular attitude to the sixties, that is was a Romantic time to come of age. The culture of the sixties and the tastes Jenny exhibits for French pop-records are all in vogue again. The ramifications here are inescapable, branding An Education as distinctly commercial filmmaking. Rather than meditate on any sociological issues or confront any political taboo, An Education prefers to give the audience everything it wants and none of what it needs. Where, as Karl Reisz and Tony Richardson prioritized the latter over the former.
The legacy for An Education will be that of so many other commercial coming of age dramas. The generation who experienced its theatrical release will cherish the film, but few books of criticism or film history will cite the film. Meanwhile, Saturday Night And Sunday Morning along with This Sporting Life and others will always have a place in the hearts of the Robert Kolkers of the world.