It’s hard to know when to stop. Take the film An Education. I loved it till the final 90 seconds. I watched it this week at the National Film and Television School with the writer Nick Hornby, who wrote the screenplay, and producers Finola Dwyer and Amanda Posey. And they admit that the ending was a problem for them.
But first things first. The film is excellent. I recommend you go see it – preferably with your godmother, if you have one, or your exciting aunt.
That’s because it’s set in the swinging London of 1961. Think Colin MacInnes’s Absolute Beginners. The hero is Jenny, convincingly played by Carey Mulligan. She’s a bright attractive 16-year-old, who’s bored with the dull routine of cello lessons, school, Latin homework and the prospect of a boring proper life to follow. The single possible glimmer of light is the possibility of getting in to Oxford to read English. But, as she puts it, this translates into, at best, working hard and being bored at school, then working hard at Oxford, then working hard and being bored as a teacher or civil servant.
Tucked away in her bedroom she reads Camus, listens to Juliette Greco and imagines running away to Paris to wear black, smoke, dance and never return.
Then one rainy day, Jenny and her cello are offered a lift at the bus stop by the attractive and sympathetic older man, David ( Peter Sarsgaard). He charms and amuses schoolgirl Jenny into his car and drives her home to her parents – the protective yet calculating and easily hoodwinked Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour.
From here on, Jenny is introduced to a glittering exciting world of art, sophistication and sharp practice. She sparkles at first, but then…
Well, that’s enough plot. The story is both moving and funny. Very funny.
As an aspiring writer, my favourite line is spoken by Jenny’s father. I can’t recall it verbatim, but it’s something along the lines of: “Knowing a famous writer is far better than being one. Knowing one shows that you’re connected.”
But there are so many good ones, especially from the lips of the glamorous but thick Helen, played by Rosamund Pike. (Ironically she really is an accomplished cellist and French speaker.)
Two main themes run through the film. Whether a traditional education (school, university) trumps the university of life. Or if either are appropriate. And whether or when you should tell the truth to friends, family or yourself – before someone gets hurt, or afterwards.
The film is based on an essay in Granta magazine written by the journalist Lynn Barber about her teenage years. If you’ve read the original piece, or the book, you’ll already know it’s a great story. But don’t presume you know how the film story goes – Jenny’s life does not exactly mirror Lynn’s.
According to the trio answering questions after the film showing – Nick Hornby, Finola Dwyer and Amanda Posey – Lynn Barber was the ideal inspiration. Which means: She didn’t interfere. She read script drafts and only intervened to ensure the period details were accurate.
However, what I didn’t realise at the time, is that apparently there is something to which she objected. In her original essay, she called the older man who sweeps her up, Simon. In the film he’s called David. That’s the niggle. Her late husband was also called David. He was seriously ill and then died during the making of the film. Lynn was not a 16-year-old schoolgirl at a bus stop when she first encountered the real David. They met later in her life. It’s understandable she’d prefer the rogue in the film to have some other name. I wonder why the film makers stuck with the name David.
But, getting back to my own quibble. In the final minute or so, the film switches to a voice over from Jenny to tie up the loose ends. What loose ends? I don’t like it. It falls flat. I found it neither uplifting nor thought-provoking nor even necessary.
It’s still an excellent film, but I was puzzled by the ending. (I’m being a little coy about the details because I don’t want to spoil things before you watch it yourself.) It turns out the film makers also wrestled with how to bring the tory to an end.
One alternative which was shown to a test audience, included a reunion/confrontation between Jenny and David. But the audience were not keen. (Again, I don’t want to reveal why, exactly.) And the screenplay writer Nick Hornby feels that he never quite managed to nail that particular alternative ending to his own satisfaction either. He’s much happier with the voice over option.
He’s probably right. Having heard him describe the alternative, they’ve chosen the better option. The best option however would have been to cut the voice over completely. A shot of Jenny in her new environment, leading into the credits, would have been enough. We don’t need to be spoon fed.
You can see and judge for yourself. I love the film. Even the opening title sequence is clever. It’s just that, like many of us, the film makers found it hard to know when to stop.