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Oscar Nominations Aside, 'An Education' Makes Me Cringe

By Sarah Seltzer

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This week’s Oscar nominations have been kind to the Nick Hornby penned film “An Education,” which netted honors for acting, writing, and even Best Picture. The film tells the story of a bright middle-class schoolgirl in a humdrum town in mid-century Britain, who falls into an affair with a cultured, attractive and winning older man named David Goldman. Yep, he’s Jewish. He also ends up being a sneaky, lying, conniving criminal who has deceived our naive protagonist and her family and led her off her dogged path to success which includes an Oxford acceptance.

I enjoyed the earnest acting and the quiet drama of the film, which was so accurate and true to the mindsets of teenage girls. In fact, I could almost overlook Hornby’s somewhat obvious writing and the stereotypical portrayal of the Jewish character, but not quite. Gabrielle Birkner did a great job interviewing Hornby for the Forward back in December, but his responses didn’t quite clear away all my discomfort with the way the Goldman character fits into problematic conceptions of Jewishness. I’m not saying it’s a blatantly antisemitic film, because it has a very sympathetic and humane approach to all its characters, even towards Goldman who’s played brilliantly by Peter Saarsgard. I’m just saying it’s a little too close for comfort to antisemitic tropes.

As a huge fan of Brit-lit and British TV, this film struck me as portraying Jews in a vintage British way. It reminded me of 19th century novels by Trollope, Dickens, Walter Scott and even the well-intentioned George Eliot. In these novels, the Jew is the dynamic, seductive outsider, with winning ways that subvert or circumvent the staid class system and strict social manners of the gentile Brits. The exotic Jew throws stuck-in-the-mud British society into relief, maybe shakes people up a bit, but ends up being incompatible with their lives — usually he or she proves untrustworthy or too exotic for England.

This isn’t quite the same image of the Jewish character we see on this side of the pond — pushy, nebbishy, neurotic. There’s a lot of historical, cultural, and sociological analysis to explain how such stock types are absorbed into different cultures. But the end result just goes to show us that ethnic and racial anxieties vary from place to place, and have way more to do with the stereotypers than the stereotypees.


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Comments
sharon rosen leib Fri. Feb 5, 2010

"An Education" is on the surface a beautifully constructed, well-acted film. Beneath the surface lurks the uncomfortable truth of deeply ingrained British anti-Semitism. So deeply ingrained that it might not have been apparent to Nick Hornby. While I enjoyed watching the film it left me with an unsettled, bad-taste-in-my-Jewish-mouth feeling. It will be interesting to see whether it garners a lot of Academy Awards.

Peter Reich Sat. Feb 6, 2010

Contrary to the views of the critics of "An Education," I saw the film as a trenchant critique of British antisemitism. The Emma Thompson character is pointedly criticized for referring to the Jews as having "killed our lord," and others using the term "wandering Jew" are clearly disapproved of. As far as the Jewish con man goes, how else was the filmmaker supposed to depict someone who was modeled after a real-life person who played a key role in the memoir on which the movie was based? Otherwise, there could never be a literary or documentary portrayal of anyone from any identifiable religious or ethnic group with negative characteristics, which is just silly. There were in fact Jewish real estate speculators in 1960s England, just as there are similar figures now (eg. Madoff), as well as Protestants, Catholics, and Buddhists who may not measure up to somebody's imaginary ideal of perfection.




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