My twin highlights of the London Film Festival, Cracks and An Education, are both coming-of-age tales in which young women have their conception of the world upended when a brutal reality intrudes. They are also both directed by women, both set in Britain at periods of momentous change, and both offer some of the best screen acting of the year.
Cracks, which had its UK premiere last week and opens in December, is a lush, dreamy, fantastically confident debut feature from Jordan Scott, based on the novel by Sheila Kohler. Set in a remote English all-girls boarding school in 1934, it’s somewhere between The Virgin Suicides and Picnic at Hanging Rock, as the cheerful monotony of life is disturbed, then shattered by the arrival of a new girl, rumoured to be a Spanish princess.
The trio at the heart of the film are the glamorous, seemingly worldly Miss G (Eva Green), whose stories of her adventurous early life captivate her pupils; Di Radfield (Juno Temple), the captain of Miss G’s diving team; and Fiamma (Maria Valverde), the Spanish newcomer, in whom Di immediately recognises a competitor. Because Di is Miss G’s favourite: she’s the best diver, the closest confidante and most avid listener to Miss G’s exotic tales. Fiamma threatens all of these, as well as Di’s position as unquestioned top dog of the group.
Juno Temple, as Di Radfield, gives a star-making performance here: heartfelt, vulnerable and dangerous, part Marmalade Atkins part Catherine Tramell. She plays Radfield with just the right degree of self-awareness, balancing wide-eyed curiosity with the assumed ironic poise of a girl who’s read just a bit too much Dorothy Parker. Eva Green, of course, is splendid as Miss G at the beginning of the film, as she sashays into chapel to admiring glances from the girls; but she struggles with the character as we discover more about her, and the cracks start to appear. Green is better at cool irony than passion, and is most confident as characters — as in her sensational debut, The Dreamers — who are aware they’re being watched. Alone in a room she seems to falter, her grip on the character fading. Nonetheless, as the screws of the story start to tighten, and tragedy becomes inevitable, Cracks is absolutely gripping, and I’m already looking forward to whatever Scott does next.
An Education is of course, already famous as the film that made Carey Mulligan a star, although I think that’s been apparent since she appeared in Doctor Who; she also brought her beguiling blend of innocence and steel to The Seagull at the Royal Court and on Broadway last year. But hers is not the only extraordinary performance in the movie: Olivia Williams provides a sequel of sorts to Rushmore as another fragile but life-changing teacher, and Rosamund Pike reinvents herself triumphantly as the dim but compassionate Helen. She does something absolutely extraordinary here, playing a woman with great emotional intelligence but absolutely none of the traditional kind, and her performance is hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measure.
Now. Spoilers. Don’t keep reading if you haven’t seen the film — but if you have, were you disappointed by the ending? It’s true to life, I imagine (I haven’t read Lynn Barber’s memoir) but on film it feels as if Nick Hornby ran out of time and farmed out the last act to the writers of Eastenders. A film that’s been all about nuance, huge emotions signalled in a single dipped eyelash, tips into lurid melodrama, and the most contrived discovery of letters since National Treasure Part 2. More importantly, it’s a betrayal of the character: the film may be called An Education, but the ending makes Jenny merely passive, a victim of circumstance, rather than a woman who has learned, changed and decided to act. It doesn’t diminish the rest of the movie, but it’s a dull, unworthy finish to such a subtle piece of work.