Playful -- Yet Tender and Sad
Taken from the pages of Lynn Barber’s memoir, An Education is not only the poignant coming-of-age story of a young girl growing up in early 1960s England, it’s also a metaphor for that period in the country’s history. England was on the verge of pushing open the door of post-war austerity and stepping into the age of the Pill, newfound freedoms and thrilling possibilities. Certainly an alluring but potentially toxic environment to the aspirations of a 16-year-old gifted student on track for a place at Oxford.
Wise beyond her years, Jenny (Carey Mulligan) bides time at the brink of womanhood, studying Latin while singing along to the records of French recording artists. She ponders the thrill of life beyond school, but her thoughts are kept in check by guarded, middle-class parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) with the admirable ambition of bettering their daughter’s life though education. When the charming, but considerably older David (Peter Sarsgaard) -- he’s 30, she’s 16 -- swoops into her life, the wheels of Jenny’s extracurricular education are set into motion.
Though suave, charming and a master of the complimentary word, David eventually turns out to be a shyster and a thief. But to Jenny he’s the taste of things to come. She sees him as her conduit to the good things in life she has so often dreamt about, which causes her to contemplate the dilemma of life vs. education. To the movie, David is the Beatles, the ‘60s and the entire sexual revolution all rolled into one -- an awakening about to engulf the world.
David soon tricks Jenny’s parents into letting him take her away on a series of weekend jaunts -- to Oxford and eventually Paris. Her cautious Mum and Dad’s initial objections eventually cede to the reasoning that if this successful real estate broker scoops her up, they’ll save Oxford tuition. Despite her wisdom and self-confidence… and because of the innocence she loses along the way, Jenny is eventually faced with the adult decision of whether David is the right man for her.
We’ll get to Mulligan’s shining performance in a moment, but kudos to Sarsgaard for his brilliant turn here, especially with the way he sidesteps the 500-pound gorilla in the room. We never feel uncomfortable with David and Jenny’s relationship. Despite being nearly twice her age, Sarsgaard never comes off as a pervert looking for the next notch in his teddy bear, partly because of the self-confidence oozed by Mulligan, but mostly by the way Sarsgaard’s David appears so sympathetic and genuine… like a nice guy who just wants to have fun. We stand in awe of the way he charms Jenny off her feet and by how his asking her parents for permission to take her to Paris turns into a jovial, fireside cocktail klatch. A missed performance in this role by a lesser-skilled actor could have derailed the entire film.
Remember the name Carey Mulligan... It’ll surely come up later. She has the squeaky clean freshness of spring water and sunshine, yet in An Education, she delivers a mature, multi-layered performance many veteran actors spend a career searching for. Her Jenny is mature and self-assured… but believably unprincipled. We see Jenny blossom from a giggly, plaid-skirted schoolgirl into an elegantly clad Holly Golightly, right before our eyes.
A couple of other “stars” worthy of mention are screenwriter Nick Hornby and director Lone Sherfig. Though both are somewhat new on the filmmaking scene, their collaboration on An Education feels expertly perfect. The dialogue is brilliantly written and crackles with every bite. All actors (including Emma Thompson, Olivia Williams, and Rosamond Pike) turn in emotionally engaging performances. This is a finely crafted film that touches every emotion. Watch it to see how a story so fun and playful can also be so tender and heartbreakingly sad.
(Released by Sony Pictures Classics and rated “PG-13” for mature thematic material involving sexual content, and for smoking.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com .