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Is Your Boyfriend Interested In Clever?

September 16th, 2010 · 4 Comments

The Bechdel Test was named for Allison Bechdel, whose comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For in 1985 measured the female presence in movies by employing three criteria: Are there two or more women in it, with names? Do the women talk to each other? About something other than a man? Far too many mainstream movies flunk this test, but in the month of September, I take a look at ten recent movies that pass.

An Education (2009)
Directed by Lone Scherfig
Screenplay by Nick Hornby, based on the memoir by Lynn Barber
Produced by Finola Dwyer, Amanda Posey
100 minutes

Recalling the entrance that an ingénue named Natalie Portman made with The Professional in 1994, Carey Mulligan radiates such ingenuity in An Education that it’s easy to overlook how terrific the coming-of-age tale that forms around her is. Author Nick Hornby discovered the material in the spring of 2003 in the British literary journal Granta. Sensing that the 10-page autobiographical essay by journalist Lynn Barber had the elements of a movie, Hornby mentioned it to his then girlfriend (later wife), producer Amanda Posey, who optioned film rights with her partner Finola Dwyer. Hornby wrote the first draft of An Education on spec in 2004. Rejected by several financiers due to its limited commercial appeal and the difficulty casting the lead role, two executives at BBC Films named David Thompson and Tracey Scoffield gambled on the project.

Preferring a woman behind the camera, Hornby lucked out when Danish director Lone Scherfig expressed interest in An Education. BBC raised a budget of roughly £4.5 million ($7 million USD) and shooting finally commenced in and around Twickenham Film Studios in March 2008. Lynn Barber’s memoir has the intimacy of a finely honed short story; it’s not so much what happens but who it happens to which is so captivating. In addition to its star making performance by Carey Mulligan, Hornby and Scherfig bring whimsy to material that could have easily gone too dark, too nostalgic or too pretentious. Impeccably well cast by Lucy Bevan and drenched in shades of a jazz LP cover by John de Borman, An Education was nominated for three Academy Awards — Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay — but won none.

In the London suburb of Twickenham in 1961, 16-year-old Jenny (Carey Mulligan) blazes an academic trail for Oxford, writing A+ papers in the English class of Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams) and playing cello in youth orchestra. Waiting in the rain for a bus, Jenny is offered a ride by David (Peter Sarsgaard), a witty, considerate man. While the ambitions of Jenny’s classmate Graham (Matthew Beard) fail to pass the muster of Jenny’s father (Alfred Molina), David runs into Jenny again and invites her to a performance of Ravel. Introducing himself to Jenny’s father and mother (Cara Seymour), David charms them into allowing their daughter to go on the date. After the concert, David works in supper at a nightclub with his cosmopolitan friends Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike).

Having the time of her life, Jenny ditches school to attend an auction with David. His exact line of work remains mysterious — “property, a bit of art dealing” — but with a winning personality and a bit of cleverness, he convinces Jenny’s parents to allow her to spend the weekend in Oxford with him and his friends. Jenny makes clear to David she intends to keep her virginity until she turns 17. David respects this wish but during the weekend, it becomes clear to Jenny that her boyfriend’s occupation involves swindling and stealing. When David promises Jenny a birthday getaway to Paris, news of their adventures begins disrupting classes. Miss Stubbs warns her pupil not to throw away her education on David, but the life of an English teacher holds little appeal to the teenager, who wants to live it up while she can.

Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 14,719 users: 77% for An Education

Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: 85 for An Education

What do you say?

Tags: Based on book · Coming of age · Concert · Father/daughter relationship · High school · Master and pupil · Museums and galleries · Unconventional romance

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Wes // Sep 16, 2010 at 8:19 am

    Great review. I agree about the whimsy. In that time period and place, the consequences for Jenny could have been severe. Her being a little wise for her age was a nice, even ending.

  • 2 Patrick // Sep 17, 2010 at 7:47 pm

    I say I thought it was one of the top couple of movies (that I saw) of 2009. Great look at what the expectations were for women in the 1960’s, and that was basically to go to college until they found a husband. I heard a little bit from the author on the radio, talking about going over the story with Hornby and that he made the guy a little nicer and more polished than he really was, and explaining that if he didn’t no one would understand why she fell for him.

  • 3 Alex // Sep 18, 2010 at 7:46 am

    I love that you’re taking a look at movies that pass the Bechdel Test! My podcast is planning on doing a whole episode devoted to just that, actually.

    I enjoyed An Education mainly for the performances and gorgeous attention to period details. Great start for Carey Mulligan, who handled her complex character really well.

  • 4 Joe Valdez // Sep 18, 2010 at 9:11 am

    Wes: The American version of this story might have focused on the age difference between Jenny and David and how “politically incorrect” it was. But the movie is much more about the social awakening of the girl and more “feminist” than most recent movies I can think of. Thanks for commenting!

    Patrick: I agree. An Education is up there among the best of 2009 for me as well. I love movies that are a discovery and in addition to Carey Mulligan, here we’re permitted to discover a time, place and culture that we don’t often see explored in movies. Thanks for commenting!

    Alex: In violation of the Bechdel Test, you could argue Carey Mulligan’s scenes with her friends, Olivia Williams and Emma Thompson are about David on some level, but that dialogue is also about her future, not just The Man, so I cut the movie some slack. I can’t wait for the Film Forager podcast on this phenomenon. Thanks for commenting!

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