Education, An (United Kingdom, 2009)

October 20, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Education, An Poster

What happens when you combine a star-making turn by a young actress with a supporting cast of an unimpeachable pedigree and a screenplay by Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy)? The result, shepherded to the screen by Danish-born filmmaker Lone Scherfig, is An Education, one of 2009's finest motion pictures - an open and honest look at sexual politics and a woman's place in the world during the early1960s. Impeccably staged and acted, An Education culls the most from a solid script (based on the memoir of Lynn Barber), providing viewers with a rich, satisfying experience.

As Jenny, Carey Mulligan gives the kind of performance that will have viewers searching in search of other things they can see her in. In fact, her resume is more substantial than that of many 22-year olds, but most of her roles were on British television (her most internationally visible parts being as Ada Clare in the BBC-TV adaptation of Bleak House and as Sally Sparrow in the Doctor Who episode "Blink"). Mulligan's acting in An Education is eye opening; it's no stretch to say that she's one of the reasons this film is so good. She plays a character six years younger than her actual age with complete credibility. She never falls into the common traps of precociousness and overt sentimentality, and during the scenes in Paris, there's more than a little Audrey Hepburn in her approach. Jenny is smart, determined, and aware enough of the ways of the world to make her occasional naiveté an endearing characteristic rather than a detriment. Mulligan embodies these traits to perfection and deserves to be placed on a short list of actors deserving a Best Actress nomination.

An Education opens in the early 1960s in London, where 16-year old Jenny's entire life focus is on getting into Oxford. Her father, Jack (Alfred Molina), reminds her constantly to avoid distractions and work on doing better in Latin, although he is concerned about how he's going to pay for her education if she is accepted. Jenny's mum, Majorie (Cara Seymour), is a little more solicitous of her daughter's feelings. For her part, Jenny is content to study and play the cello until the afternoon when a stranger in a flashy car offers her (and her cello) a ride home in the pouring rain. He's 30-something year-old David (Peter Sarsgaard), and he's as taken by his precocious teenage passenger as she is by her Sir Galahad. Seductive and charismatic, David finds subtle ways to insinuate himself into Jenny's life and Jack and Majorie are as impressed by him as their daughter is. But David is obviously too good to be true and, as Jenny spends more time with him, she begins to learn some of his less savory secrets.

The title refers to the life lessons that Jenny learns as a result of her romance with David, her interaction with his friends, Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike), and her recognition of how limited an educated woman's choices are during this pre-liberation era. Through the course of this movie, Jenny learns about life, love, and herself. She enters her liaison with David believing she's worldly and self-assured, but she soon learns that a sheltered upbringing such as hers can never fully prepare someone for aspects of the "real world."

Lone Scherfig, who is a graduate of the Dogma school of filmmaking (she made the low key romantic comedy Italian for Beginners in 2000, which was the 12th film to receive the official Dogma seal of approval), eschews overt manipulation in her approach to Jenny's story, and it is unquestionably the right choice. By keeping the melodrama to a simmer, Scherfig makes Jenny a strong, forceful character who is ultimately in charge of her destiny, not a guileless girl who becomes the victim of an older man with confused motivations. Nick Hornby's screenplay, as usual, is sharp and intelligent, with plenty of pithy dialogue. The only scene that rings false is one in which Alfred Molina delivers a lengthy soliloquy to a closed door.

Although Mulligan's performance is front-and-center, she is ably supported by a talented cast. Peter Sarsagaard, adopting a credible British accent, slips easily into the role of a cad whose feelings may be more genuine than he first suspects. Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike are the serpents in the Garden of Eden - vapid and sensual creatures whose lifestyles are impossible not to covet. Olivia Williams, in an underwritten role, is the teacher who warns Jenny against David only to earn her student's reproach. A tart and amusing Emma Thompson is the headmistress, whose words of wisdom are couched in amusingly Puritanical terms. Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour add a dose of low-key comedy as the middle class parents who are easy prey for someone of David's charm. Sally Hawkins, who was so memorable last year in Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky, has a small but important part.

On the surface, it might look as if this is a cautionary tale about the dangers of a teenage girl entering into a relationship with a man twice her age, but Jenny embarks upon her romantic adventure with a clear head. She is ultimately a casualty not of her own innocence but of something that could victimize someone of any age. In the end, this is more a character study of Jenny than a tale of tortured love, and a reminder that any education worth having comes with its share of trauma.

Education, An (United Kingdom, 2009)

Ranked #9 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2009
Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 2009-10-09
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1