An Education (Sony Pictures Classics, PG-13)

film_an-education_sm.jpgEvery now and then a movie comes along which makes me want to stand up and cheer; An Education is that kind of movie.







Every now and then a movie comes along which makes me want to stand up and cheer. An Education is that kind of movie, combining the kind of assured craftsmanship which recalls the great films of Hollywood’s golden age with a modern and complex script about a young woman’s coming of age in which has depth and heart while avoiding obvious judgments and clichéd characters.

It’s 1961 and 16-year-old Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a top student at her prep school, is aiming for Oxford. She dutifully puts in the requisite hours of swotting but also longs for glamour and excitement, both of which are in short supply in a London which hasn’t yet begun to swing. Jenny’s young enough and naïve enough to believe that Paris is an enchanted land of worldly sophisticates smoking Gauloises in bistros while making witty conversation, so she listens to Juliette Greco on her cheap phonograph, drops French phrases into her conversation, and is an absolute sitting duck when an attractive older man takes a fancy to her.

David (Peter Sarsgaard) seems to offer everything missing in Jenny’s life: sophistication, smart friends, and entrée into an exciting world where people buy paintings at art auctions, eat in fancy restaurants and drink wine even when it isn’t Christmas. Quite a contrast with her life in the London suburb of Twickenham with a family for whom the West End is as foreign as Timbuktu.

David can charm the birds out of the trees and wins over her suspicious parents Jack (Alfred Molina) and Marjorie (Cara Seymour). As first-generation immigrants to the middle class they want Jenny to have a better life than they did, but are also afraid of that big, exciting world she wants to join. Then there’s the obvious concern any parents would have about a middle-aged man dating their schoolgirl daughter in an era when pregnancy would end her chances for higher education. But David knows just how to play Jack and Marjorie — he’s a successful businessman who appreciates their daughter’s intellectual gifts and only wants to share his advantages with her — and they agree to let him take Jenny first to a concert and dinner in London, then on a weekend excursion to Oxford to meet C.S. Lewis, and finally on a trip to Paris to celebrate her 17th birthday.

Of course it’s all too good to be true, but Jenny chooses to ignore the obvious indications that David is not on the up-and-up because she’s enjoying the life he offers her far too much to break it off. She loves hanging out with his friends Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike), and school seems increasingly more drab and less relevant (to use a 1960s term) to her life. Infatuated with David’s world of money and glamour, Jenny burns her bridges by grievously insulting her English teacher (Olivia Williams) and the school’s headmistress (Emma Thompson). Before it’s all over, Jenny has received several educations not in the national curriculum, but far from being the conventional "sadder but wiser" girl, is able to turn those experiences to her own advantage.

There are so many fine acting performances it’s hard to single out just a few. Carey Mulligan displays just the right mixture of intelligence and naiveté, playing Jenny as a girl who actively participates in her own corruption yet feels betrayed when she realizes just how deeply it reaches. Peter Sarsgaard hits the right notes as David: He may be a cad and conman but he’s truly fallen for Jenny, and when he turns on the charm you’d need a will of iron to resist him. Dominic Cooper shows a harder edge as David’s business partner Danny, while Rosamund Pike does a hilarious turn as Danny’s dimwitted companion Helen.

Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour give nuanced performances as Jenny’s well-meaning but conventional parents who are easily conned by David in part because they think he offers their daughter a higher rung on England’s rigid social ladder. Olivia Williams is amazingly glammed-down as the English teacher who is terribly hurt by Jenny’s rejection but is also willing to forgive, contrasting with Emma Thompson’s formidable headmistress who can only speak of sexual matters in absurd euphemisms but doesn’t hesitate to render absolute judgments about girls who stray from the righteous path.

An Education is based on a real-life memoir by British journalist Lynn Barber which was published in book format by Penguin in June and is available in a shorter form here. Since I know the true story I was interested to see what Nick Hornby, more noted for laddish tales, would do with it. I’m happy to report that he is extraordinarily faithful to the spirit of the original, which just goes to show that you shouldn’t judge people too quickly. Who would have thought that the man who brought us High Fidelity and About a Boy could also pen a marvelous script for a film which centers on the growth to maturity of a young woman who, despite her imperfections, is ultimately in charge of her own destiny?

I’m equally impressed by director Lone Scherfig. Her previous films include Italian for Beginners (2000) and Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself (2002), which were critically praised but not exactly blockbuster successes here in the United States. With An Education, she has found that sweet spot in which a film can appeal to general audiences without pandering to them, telling a complex and morally ambiguous story which rewards the audience’s attention without resorting to pushing their buttons. | Sarah Boslaugh

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