Monday, November 16, 2009

Sentimental "Education": The Story of a Bored, Brilliant, Before-Beatles Young Girl


directed by Lone Scherfig
starring Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Cara Seymour, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike, Olivia Williams, Emma Thompson

“An Education” is that rare breed of film, a throwback that still manages to be delightfully fresh. At its most basic level, it’s a tale of a young girl, hungry for life, who meets an older, worldlier man she thinks is the answer to everything she wants—only to discover he really, really isn’t. Nothing new here, except the particular character of the girl. But that, as it turns out, makes all the difference.

The movie takes place in 1961, when Britain was at its squarest, dullest, and grayest—or so it seems, anyway, to Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a bright 16-year-old stuck in a prosaic corner of London with her loving but hopelessly bourgeois parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour). Jenny yearns for a world filled with high culture and sophistication, in the form of fine art, music, and films (preferably French ones), and, in her words, “people who know lots about lots.” Her one hope lies in gaining admission to Oxford. For she’s the star of her class at her prep school, and she’s got the full driving force of her parents, especially her anxious, status-conscious father, behind her.

Then Jenny meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), an attractive man in his 30’s who seems to offer her a much quicker, pleasanter path to her dreams. His occupation and background may be a bit mysterious, but she knows right away that he’s just the kind of people whose society she craves, with his easy, agreeable manners and his air of cultivation, his expensive car and his superlative taste in music and flowers. Before long he’s squiring her to classical concerts, fashionable West End supper clubs, and high-end art auctions—never alone (he’s too canny for that), but in the company of his affable, beautifully dressed friends (Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike). David is so smooth he even convinces Jenny’s parents that he’s a man of influence who can help elevate their beloved daughter to a better class. It’s all an act, of course, that eventually, inevitably comes crashing down, forcing Jenny to learn that there are no shortcuts to the life she desires.

That description makes “An Education” sound preachier than it actually is. In fact, the film treads almost too lightly for its own good. Based on the memoir of a British journalist, Lynn Barber, as adapted by Nick Hornby, Britain’s best-known comic chronicler of British boy-men, and the Danish director of “Italian for Beginners,” it maintains a breeziness of tone and a gentleness towards its characters that tends to gloss over the darker aspects of Jenny’s story. This occasionally strains credulity: in particular, Jenny’s parents seem absurdly naive in the face of David’s predations, even if one understands why they might have the incentive for willful self-deception. And though the movie doesn’t avoid showing David’s unsavory side, including the shady business ventures that fund his courtship of Jenny, it doesn’t dwell on their uglier social implications; they merely serve to confirm the basic point we already know—namely, that David’s a scoundrel.

What gives the film depth and grounding is the quality of the acting, which helps fill out the underwritten characters and render the unlikely developments more plausible. Molina makes the often frustrating character of Jenny’s father surprisingly sympathetic, while Sarsgaard, as David, strikes a careful balance between charming and slightly creepy. Olivia Williams is also excellent as Jenny’s concerned English teacher, and the great Emma Thompson pops up briefly and entertainingly as the headmistress of Jenny’s school. It’s always a pleasure to see Thompson on screen, even if her role here borders on caricature.

But it’s obviously Jenny who makes the movie, and thanks in large part to Mulligan’s vivid, confident performance, she emerges as one of the most fully realized young female protagonists to appear in any movie this year. Virginal but not artless, precocious but not wise, winsome but never cloying, she’s ultimately too smart and too resilient to be crushed by David’s perfidy, her parents’ foolishness, or her teachers’ disapproval. Mulligan, who’s been picking up a lot of well-deserved Oscar buzz, sparkles in a wholly believable way: watching her, we can only believe that her Jenny will take this experience just enough, but not too much, to heart, and become all the stronger for it. Here’s hoping the same holds true for Mulligan as an actress.



Blogger Dave said...

Now that Mad Men is over, you should start blogging about Glee. I know you've been watching it! :) I'm extremely behind on Mad Men this season (just finally saw the episode where they go to Rome). Glee keeps getting in the way.

2:34 PM  
Blogger lylee said...

The thing about blogging "Glee" is that my love of "Glee" defies analysis. If I start to analyze it, I'll only end up criticizing it. After all, the show is totally ridiculous and we all know it and love it anyway!

But I'll see what I can do.

1:17 AM  

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