Status: In limited release (opened 10/16/09)
Directed By: Lone Scherfig
Written By: Nick Hornby
Cinematographer: John de Borman
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike, Alfred Molina
Not that the two movies have much in common besides this, but the introductory credits sequence of An Education reminded me of that of Jackie Brown. Both depict their main character, a strong and confident woman, beginning her day, with perfectly defining music playing on the soundtrack (Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” in the latter case, Floyd Cramer’s “On the Rebound” in the former). Jenny (Carey Mulligan) of An Education is a teenage schoolgirl in 1960s London, who like many schoolgirls fancies herself mature beyond her years. She and her friends smoke cigarettes, speak what little French they’ve learned in school, and hang out in cafes while discussing how the boys their own age are oh-so uninteresting.
Lucky for Jenny, she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), who offers to give her a ride home from orchestra practice in the rain one day. David is older, but not too old, and rich and charming too. He seems innocent enough; he offers to help, shows Jenny a good time, and charms her parents into letting her spend more time with him. Her father (Alfred Molina), in particular, takes a liking to David. Previously he’d been obsessed with her getting into Oxford, but now he starts to think that maybe if she has a man like David to take care of her, Jenny doesn’t need to go to college afterall.
We don’t have a hard time seeing where David’s coming from. He’s not exactly Humbert Humbert: Jenny’s attempts to appear sophisticated and clever and charming are thoroughly successful, and a girl in her final year of secondary education is quite a different type of nymphet than the 12-year-old Lolita. That’s not to say that the relationship here feels at all appropriate—though I don’t feel too creepy for admitting that I empathized completely with David’s feelings for Jenny (Carey Mulligan is actually 24). And as an actress, Mulligan is pretty amazing. She gains our sympathy and then torments us with it quite effectively.
The tone of An Education is playful for the first two-thirds of the film, and yet there’s a stinging sensation in the back of our minds that something must be up. The story builds a subtle kind of tension that we as an audience are hardly even aware of until it becomes palpable enough to boil over. The screenplay effectively establishes this build-and-release, and it’s satisfyingly sneaky in doing so. Written by Nick Hornby, who is usually the one having his books adapted into movies (High Fidelity, About a Boy, Fever Pitch), the script here is based on a memoir by Lynn Barber. The people in this story feel real and yet exaggerated at the same time. The way David and his friends (Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike) play off of each other is humorous yet sad, relaxed and yet also somehow tense. There’s an added dimension to the relationships here that we’re vaguely aware of, and yet it catches us of guard when it makes itself known. The film gets a little clunky during its epilogue, feeling like it’s rushing to wrap things up, but until that point it’s thoroughly engaging.
The real story of this movie, though, is Carey Mulligan, and her portrayal of Jenny. She’s the kind of girl we all knew when we were that age, the one who everybody at school talked about, whose exploits seemed a little too far-fetched to be believable, even if we knew they were true. There’s a lot of range in the spectrum of Jenny, and Mulligan is truly amazing in her ability to convey it all. An Education is highlighted by her performance, but at the same time it’s complemented with a range of characters that flesh out the story and add sufficient depth to tell Jenny’s story realistically. It’s an enjoyable little movie with a lot to offer.