An Education

November 20, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina
Directed by: Lone Scherfig (“Italian for Beginners”)
Written by: Nick Hornby (“About a Boy”)

More mature than any coming-of-age story in recent years, director Lone Scherfig’s “An Education” is a beautifully-written character study about a teenage girl blinded by the idea of love in 1960s London.

Adapted by Nick Hornby (“About a Boy”) from a memoir by British journalist Lynn Barber, the film follows Jenny Miller (newcomer Carey Mulligan who has often been compared to Audrey Hepburn), an intelligent 16-year old girl whose aspirations for her future surpass anything her boring little schoolgirl life is giving her at the moment.

Set to go to Oxford University to study English – partly because she wants to and partly because her father (Alfred Molina) has always hovered over her shoulder to make sure she doesn’t get off track – Jenny is prim and proper, independent, and never lets her inexperience direct her next step in life.

Things change, however, when she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), an older, well-to-do man who quickly takes a liking to Jenny’s youthfulness. Jenny, too, is immediately charmed by David who isn’t anything like the fresh-faced boys smitten with her at school. None of them drive around in sleek sports cars like David does nor can any of them afford to take her to Paris, treat her to fine meals at posh night clubs, or outwit her doting father who allows the courting to continue despite some initial hesitancy.

As their relationship blossoms, the idea to attend Oxford becomes less and less important to Jenny. What woman really needs an education when there is a man in her life who will marry and provide for her? It’s the same type of traditional idealism encountered in 2003’s “Mona Lisa Smile.”

There is, however, a deeper sophistication to “An Education” brought in by screenwriter Hornby and director Lone Scherfig (“Italian for Beginners”) that magnifies these themes more than any films may have attempted before. Beneath David’s charismatic exterior, Hornby gives just enough of his menacing quality that you can’t be sure whether or not you saw it yourself. The always reliable Sarsgaard plays the part to perfection.

As the film slowly reveals itself, Mulligan continues to dominate the screen. As Jenny, she conveys everything a love-struck teenage girl would under the same circumstances of that era. From her vulnerability to her naivety, the layered role Mulligan has embarked on is career-defining and one that is sure to earn her an Oscar nomination.

As Jenny struggles through an emotionally-charged journey to womanhood, “An Education” allows us to feel the same exhilarating liberation and heartbreaking disappointment she is experiencing. While the film wraps up in a peculiarly ordinary fashion, the overly-cautious third act doesn’t hurt the movie much. By then, we’re devoted to Mulligan and the nearly flawless production Scherfig has created right before our eyes.