'An Education' is an Absorbing and Evocative Exploration of Womanhood

Sony Pictures Classics

City Pulse | October 5, 2009
Danish director Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners) impeccably captures her film's early '60s cold war British setting with glorious attention to detail. Actress Carey Mulligan is a revelation as Jenny, a smart and attractive 16-year-old English school girl whose plans for studying literature at Oxford are waylaid by David (played by the ever-reliable Peter Sarsgaard), a wealthy entrepreneur twice Jenny's age, with a knack for charming his way through any situation. Mulligan captivates as the intellectually precocious Francophile daughter of working class parents Jack and Marjorie (exquisitely played by Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour). Jenny's insatiable hunger for culture is sated by David whose Bristol sports car and bon vivant lifestyle conceals secrets that Jenny discovers only after sacrificing secondary school for a life of art auctions, jazz clubs, and a special visit to Paris on her 17th birthday. Sturdy supporting performances by Rosamund Pike, Dominic Cooper, Emma Thompson, and Sally Hawkins, augment Jenny's palpable journey of personal discovery.

An Education is set mainly in Twickenham. The suburban industrial town reflects a British middle-class life that young women today could fawn over as a quiet epoch of innocence lost. Long before cell phones, and shortly before the '60s got hip, Jenny's coming-of-age journey is a trip to the moon on gossamer wings with an inevitable tumble back down to Earth. Jenny's doting parents are preoccupied with keeping their promising daughter on track to attend Oxford in the following year. Along comes David in his snazzy car to rescue Jenny and her cello on a rainy day. The dynamics of Jenny's home life come to resemble a lightly-guarded fortress that David breezily asserts his dominance over when he convinces Jack and Marjorie to allow him to take Jenny on a weekend to visit "Clive" (C.S. Lewis) at Oxford. David's effortless lie about his association with the famous author is a brief foreshadowing of more egregious falsehoods to follow, and indicates the depth of David's potential for duplicity.

Jenny is a headstrong soul. Mentally quick on her feet, she navigates easily the upper crust social arenas (Opera, fine dining, etc.) that David and his chic cohorts Danny (Dominic Cooper), and Danny's vacuous girlfriend Helen (Rosamund Pike), share. French phrases roll off Jenny's tongue as subtle reminders of her naiveté, yet also other clearly defined cultural objectives. As a romantic opportunist and full-time conman David is equipped to play Jenny, and her unsuspecting parents, like a handcrafted mandolin. Sarsgaard's David is a charming man-boy whose stunted sexuality allows Jenny to assert her own brand of control in and out of the bedroom. Jenny's realization of the folly of her ways only pronounces more the life experiences that she substituted for regimented learning.

Adapted for the screen by Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) from Lynn Barber's coming-of-age memoir, An Education is an absorbing and evocative exploration of womanhood as embodied by the finest young actress to come along this year. There's humor here and a lust for life that is infectious. An Education is destined to become a compulsory movie for all girls on in their last year of high school.

(BBC Films & Endgame Ent.) PG-13. 95 mins. (A) (Five Stars)
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