16-year old Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is an ambitious young woman who strives for top grades at school and plans to attend prestigious Oxford College. That is, until her head is turned by suave, much older David (Peter Sarsgaard), who can show her a life very different from anything the Twickenham teen could ever expect. This begins both a coming-of-age and a life-changing relationship that will put her back on track with “An Education.”
This is a tour de force for Carey Mulligan as the intelligent, mature Jenny, a girl growing up, during the turbulent 1960’s, in middle-class suburban London. This could have been a one-hander, with the total focus on Jenny, but helmer Lone Scherfig populates “An Education” with a richly talented cast that fleshes the film into full dimension.
Peter Sarsgaard, as the cool, mysterious David, sweeps Jenny off her feet with his nice, expensive clothes, flashy car and a seemingly endless supply of money as a legitimate realtor and businessman. Jenny sees him, one day, bringing a black family to their new home in a nearby neighborhood and she sees him as a gallant white knight doing good. However, there is an underlying motivation for his actions that are considerably less than savory. There is believability in the romance and attraction between Jenny and David, making the age difference not of consequence. His affection for her seem honest, even if he is always working a con.
The supporting cast is terrific with Alfred Molina stealing the show as Jenny’s manic dad, Jack, who gets to do some terrific rants over money and allows himself to be charmed by David’s ingratiating ways. He wants his daughter’s future secured and sees David as a more attainable means than hoping she gets a scholarship to Oxford. Cara Seymour (“American Psycho”), unrecognizable, does a stolid job as Jenny’s stoic mother, Marjorie. Other notable actors giving good performances include Rosamund Pike and Dominic Cooper as David’s friends and “business” colleagues, Helen and Danny, Olivia Williams as Jenny’s caring teacher and Emma Thompson as the school headmistress who disapproves of the girl’s chosen lifestyle.
The character Jenny seems a bit too modern and freethinking for the time but the tumultuous 60’s did begin the liberation of the British youth, making the progressive nature of the young woman in keeping with the film’s tone. Danish director Lone Schefrig shows a deft hand at moving her large ensemble cast though the story, adapted by Nick Hornby from Lynn Barber’s memoir. It always has a brightness about it, mainly due to Mulligan’s excellent, award-worthy performance among so many other good performers.
Techs are first rate with 1960’s London looking very groovy and the costuming avoids outrageous caricature usually seen in films about that time. I give it an A-.
At sixteen, Jenny (Carey Mulligan, "And When Did You Last See Your Father?," "Public Enemies") plays the cello with her school orchestra, but never gets out of the suburbs of London to see a real concert. She dreams of reading English at Oxford and seems to be on her way there if she can just get that Latin grade up. But then she meets sophisticated thirtysomething David (Peter Sarsgaard, "The Skeleton Key," "Orphan") driving his rare, maroon Bristol and his interest in her exposes her to everything from London clubs to dog tracks. It's quite "An Education."
Novelist Nick Hornby ("Fever Pitch"), who usually has his own novels ("High Fidelity") adapted by others, adapts Lynn Barber's memoir and Dane Lone Scherfig ("Italian for Beginners," "Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself") directs this compelling tale of a young girl in 1961 coming to grips with the meaning of an education. Relative newcomer Carey Mulligan makes a huge splash in the title role with a complex performance that balances a sophistication beyond her years (and her upbringing) with the vulnerability of youth. She's astonishing and just about guaranteed an Oscar nomination for this role. But everything about this movie is in pitch perfect balance, from the direction to the cast to the period art direction and costume.
Jenny is the only child of the very goal-oriented Jack (Alfred Molina, "Spider-Man 2," "Nothing Like the Holidays") and the more supportive but submissive Majorie (Cara Seymour, "American Psycho," "Hotel Rwanda"). She hangs out with friends from her all girls school and gently rebuffs the attentions of age appropriate Graham (Matthew Beard, "And When Did You Last See Your Father?"). Dad is insistent that Jenny focus on her grades because the expense of an education does not grow on trees. When David enters the picture, though (in an amusing gambit where he shrewdly removes the threat of a strange man in a car), his smooth talk and the lies Jenny finds daring convince her parents that she is in good hands and they allow her to accompany him into London. Even a weekend at Oxford is OK'ed when they hear he will be visiting Jenny's favorite author, C.S. Lewis (or 'Clive,' as David refers to him). Talk at school upsets Jenny's home room teacher Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams, "Rushmore") who sees great promise in her smartest pupil and when word starts to get around that a trip to Paris is planned, Jenny is given strict warning from her Headmistress (Emma Thompson, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," "Last Chance Harvey") and yet still, all Dad sees is a potential husband that will be less stressful on his financial sheet.
But Jenny does have a real conundrum on her hands. It's clear that she doesn't really love David, just his lifestyle, nor does she love the way he funds it (he and 'business partner' Danny (Dominic Cooper, "Mamma Mia!," "The Duchess") rob open houses and use prejudice to lower property values in their favor, and it's a nice touch that David defends himself using words Jenny frequently hears from her dad). Yet in balancing the education of experience against the education she has been training for she realizes that at least she has been having fun whereas all a formal education has ever gotten the women who train her are their positions training other young women for the same. Neither Miss Stubbs nor the headmistress can give Jenny a proper answer as to why she should take up their battle. Jenny has to find that out for herself, and then, even though she tries to shoulder some of the blame of a bad decision on her dad, she is ever so gently, and correctly, rebuffed, for the lies that led him to it.
The writing is wonderful on many levels. Jenny is a Francophile who sings along to Juliette Greco and frequently trips out French phrases which befuddle Danny's glamorous looking girlfriend Helen (Rosamund Pike, "Die Another Day," 2005's "Pride & Prejudice"). When Helen hears that Jenny actually has a French teacher, she concludes 'Is that why you always speak French for no reason?,' a charming, yet troubling character tell. Prejudice is layered into the text in many ways, from David's exploitation of Black families to his own Jewishness, which Headmistress, who should be a pinnacle of intelligence and morality, uses to damn him when Jewish sympathy after WWII should be at an all time high. Class is another aspect, surely a motivating factor in David's desire for Jenny, as is the inferior placement of women in 1961 as illustrated by the frustration exhibited by Miss Stubbs in trying to convince Jenny to change her path. If France is sophistication, it also signifies Jenny's downfall, so beautifully noted by Miss Stubbs' rejection of a gift of Chanel No. 5.
Mulligan takes one's breath away with her ability to capture that moment when a girl becomes a woman. She doesn't play Jenny's affectations for foolishness, instead almost selling them as the real deal, and she's not afraid to show enthusiasm - witness her glee at being called upon to bid for a pre-Raphaelite painting at auction. The camera loves this gamin who convinces equally in school uniform or cocktail dress. Sarsgaard, whose hooded eyes can be used for reptilian effect, instead underplays as a likeable, flawed con. He's a good, if unflashy foil, which is just right. Molina is hilarious as Jenny's laser-focused dad who also learns a lesson. Making the most of smaller roles are Cooper, whose own interest in Jenny is reciprocated with a sexual spark on the dance floor, and Williams, who now needs to find a third, different, teaching role to make a trifecta. Pike is affecting as a trophy girlfriend who realizes her allure is all surface. It's a shame the wonderful Sally Hawkins ("Happy-Go-Lucky") has but a one scene cameo.
"An Education" is like "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," another post-war period film, where the pupil, rather than the teacher, recognizes the education of experience. It's terrific on so many levels that I grade it with an A.
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