Monday, October 26, 2009

Movie Review: An Education

An Education ****
Directed By:
Lone Scherfig.
Written By: Nick Hornby based on the book by Lynn Barber.
Starring: Carey Mulligan (Jenny), Peter Sarsgaard (David), Alfred Molina (Jack), Cara Seymour (Majorie), Olivia Williams (Miss Stubbs), Matthew Beard (Graham), Amanda Fairbank-Hynes (Hattie), Ellie Kendrick (Tina), Dominic Cooper (Danny), Rosamund Pike (Helen), Emma Thompson (Headmistress).

It’s England, 1961, and women go to school not to prepare themselves for future careers, but rather in order to meet a proper husband and settle down. Jenny (Carey Mulligan) has never really questioned this logic, and has spent her entire life preparing to go off to Oxford to study English literature. Her father Jack (Alfred Molina) has it all planned out for her, and she’ll get in if only she can get her Latin marks up. She dreams of a more glamorous life visiting Paris and listening to jazz and going to good restaurants, but she is biding her time.

That is until she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard). She is standing in the rain with her cello waiting for bus to take her home, when he pulls up alongside him in his fancy car. They talk, they flirt, he drives her home, and then she thinks nothing more of it. That is until the day of her recital, which she told David about, when a fancy bouquet of flowers arrives at her door. When she sees him standing in the street a few days later, she goes to thank him. He asks her to join him and his friends for a concert. She agrees. When she tells her parents about it, they say no. That is until they meet David. David is charming and funny, and soon has her parents eating out of the palm of his hand. Jenny for her part likes David, but likes the kind of life he provides her with even more. Why wait to go the fancy restaurants, listen to jazz and visit Paris when she can do so now? What can she really do with a degree anyway? Astonishingly, her parents seem to agree with this logic. We sense, and to a certain extent Jenny senses as well, that there is something not quite right about David. We don’t trust him, but everyone in the movie seems to. Even when we find out how it is that David makes his money, there is little more than a brief fight, before things go back to normal between them. Why mess with a good thing?

An Education is an extremely intelligent movie that sees its characters clearly, and gives even the minor ones real depth and feeling. The whole movie really does rest on Jenny’s shoulders, and newcomer Carey Mulligan delivers one of the best performances of the year. She captures that period in life between adolescence and adulthood just about perfectly, with her innocent looking face, and a wisdom beyond her years. In many ways, she is the most adult character in the movie, one who makes her romantic seeming decisions not simply based on youthful naiveté, but also on the knowledge that there is very little out there for her. Her happiness depends on a man, and in David even if she is not over the moon in love with him, he can provide her the lifestyle that she wants. It is a gutsy performance by Mulligan, who delivers a performance that is astonishing.

The rest of the cast rises to her level. Sarsgaard is supposed to be the adult in the relationship – after all he’s in his early 30s, and Jenny is only 16, but he has a kind of childlike innocence about him. Sure, he is letch, but he truly does seem to believe what he says to her. He is not just some heartless older man taking advantage of a younger girl, but truly believes what he is selling. Domenic Cooper, who plays David’s best friend Danny, is not as innocent, and knows where this is all heading from the beginning, but goes along anyway. Danny’s wife Helen (Rosamund Pike) is delightfully dimwitted. Pike is an actress capable of playing intelligence, but she makes Helen a dolt, and her eyes show that lack of intelligence brilliantly. Alfred Molina is wonderful as Jenny’s father, raging about his daughter going to Oxford, and then seemingly willfully making himself believe in David. Cara Seymour, as Jenny’s mother, seems to have her own ideas, but holds back. It’s not her place to question her husband. In smaller roles, Olivia Williams is heartfelt as Jenny’s teacher who believes in her, and Emma Thompson is strict as the Headmistress who feels sorry for Jenny, but not sorry enough to have a heart.

The screenplay by Nick Hornby and the direction by Lone Scherfig are both heartfelt and engaging. We would suspect a movie about a older man and teenage girl to be either depressing or sultry, but this film is neither. It is a film bursting with life and intelligence. It is impossible not to smile at the end of An Education. Jenny certainly learns a lot about life in this movie.

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