Mark Reviews Movies

AN EDUCATION

3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Lone Scherfig

Cast: Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike, Cara Seymour, Olivia Williams, Emma Thompson

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material involving sexual content, and for smoking)

Running Time: 1:35

Release Date: 10/16/09


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Review by Mark Dujsik

It's a certain type of person who has their entire life planned out at the age of 16. There are so many things that will happen to him/her just a few years down the line that the instinct is to want them to find advice, encouragement to evaluate the future in less simplistic terms, reveal their real motivation, and for someone, not to point them in the right direction, but to just offer the possibility for consideration that things probably won't go according to plan.

There are so many opportunities, so much to experience, so many dreams to be deferred, and so much that can just plain go wrong.

But the person is young, and with that youth comes the innocence of inexperience, the hazards of hopefulness, and the ache of aging.

The heroine of An Education, a living, breathing, affectionate look at all the possibilities and pitfalls of growing up, is just that kind of person. She knows exactly what she will do with her life. If she's not happy with it, it doesn't matter, because that's what she's going to do with her life. It's set in stone—preordained.

That is until something else comes along.

She is Jenny, played by Carey Mulligan in a performance that subtly speaks volumes about her character in the most minute details, and she is 16, ready to attend the University of Oxford even though she still has a year of school to finish. She knows she will attend Oxford and study English, because that is all she's known.

Her father (Alfred Molina) has been preparing her for this for years. He knows she needs a hobby, so she plays the cello. She practices just enough so it stays a hobby only. She performs with the school orchestra to prove she can start something. She's the kind of personality to point out that she should be able to quit. After all, she's already proven she can start something just by joining. Dad doesn't care for that logic.

By chance, she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), an older man who offers her cello a ride home. He suspects Jenny's not the kind of girl to accept a ride from a stranger, but after they talk for a bit—she walking along the car, he driving slowly—she believes he's the kind of man from whom she can accept a ride home.

David is very convincing. They meet again on the street, and he proposes to take her to a classical music concert followed by dinner. Her parents won't approve, she tells him. She doesn't know David that well.

David is a seemingly charming man, a smooth operator, and an effective, compulsive liar. He shows Jenny the life she never knew existed, taking her to auctions, jazz clubs, Oxford (but not to visit the university), and Paris, and she starts to realize there might be more to life than studying and getting into Oxford.

The expansion of her horizons is clearly what Jenny needs, but as it's tied so closely to a man with such a specific perspective on life and what constitutes living with such questionable ethics, there's a continual unease to the proceedings. Jenny's mother (Cara Seymour) goes along with David, although not as willingly as her father, and David's friends Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike) allow her into the group without hesitancy but not without looks of foreboding.

What David is up to is slowly revealed, and Sarsgaard, with a flawless British dialect, has such sincerity in his performance, he manages to con us as much as he does everyone around him.

That's the strength of Nick Hornby's screenplay (adapted from a memoir by Lynn Barber), which doesn't judge its characters or try to justify their actions. Hornby simply lets the characters be and allows us to see where they're coming from.

Take Jenny's father, who clearly has his daughter's best interest in mind but has no way to show that except by driving her life in the direction he sees best. For him, David is a shortcut, not to ridding himself of her but to ensure her life with work out. There's a very tender moment late in the film where the father stands outside Jenny's door, finally explaining himself and his actions but in such a way that it never sounds as such.

Then there's Jenny's English teacher (Olivia Williams), who see the potential in Jenny and tries to make her see there's more to life than her adventures with David. Jenny, of course, cannot see that, and in a painful scene, she lets her frustration out on her kind teacher.

Jenny's self- and life discovery progresses naturally, and director Lone Scherfig lets it in Jenny's quiet moments alone listening to Juliette Gréco, the look of awe on her face as she attends her first classical concert and visits her first jazz club, the disappointment and quick turnaround when she learns the nature of David's business, or the timid way she speaks to David about the possibility of losing her virginity but the determined way she discusses it in her terms.

Perhaps the greatest asset of An Education is that the film lives entirely in the moment with its characters and their successes and failures. The existence of a final narration seems out of place in the context of what's come before, until we hear what it has to say. Summarizing how these events affect Jenny's later life, she denies it to others, but nothing changes that it happened and shapes even the most harmless conversations. 

That is the paradox of growing up, and An Education captures that with ease and wisdom.

Copyright © 2009 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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