Wednesday, November 11, 2009

An Education (****)

Directed by Lone Scherfig


Within the film An Education, there is a performance of spectacular grace and beauty. That performance comes from Carey Mulligan in her first starring role. It's the kind of performance that will make her a movie star, if we're all lucky enough. Of course, I'm not saying anything new. People have been praising Mulligan for her performance in this film since it premiered at the early film festivals like Cannes. What hasn't been said enough, though, is how fantastic the film is on the whole. Based on a screenplay by the superb novelist Nick Hornby, An Education is one of the best films of the year.

Set during the budding years of the 60's, the film is about Jenny (Mulligan) a sixteen-year-old school girl whose charm is only surpassed by her unbound work ethic which allows her to achieve exceptional grades in all her classes. Of course, this is something she has to do because her meddling father Jack (Alfred Molina) will accept nothing less than Jenny getting into Oxford. Jack makes sure that she does everything she needs to do to achieve: makes her study instead of listen to music, makes her take up the cello as a hobby, and even dismisses possible boyfriends who seem like nothing more than "wandering Jews".

Coming home from cello practice, Jenny gets caught in the rain and is approached by a much older man who offers to give her a ride home. This man is David (Peter Sarsgaard), and he takes an almost immediate liking to Jenny. He asks her if she would like to accompany him to a classical music concert, but she knows that her father will never allow it. David arrives at Jenny's home, and within a matter of minutes, he begins to throw his indelible charm at Jack. Not only does he get permission to take Jenny to the concert, but even gets permission to keep her well past her curfew.

Jenny meets David's posh friends: Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike) and they have a wondrous night on the town. They smoke, listen to jazz, and eat good food at fancy restaurants. For the first time, Jenny is experiencing life outside of her textbooks and she's become intoxicated with it. She becomes intoxicated with David as well, even though he is nearly twenty years older than her. When rumors of her "new boyfriend" begin to reach the ears of administrators at her all-girl boarding school, she is warned about the consequences of her actions. Jenny must decide between the conservative, safe path of books and universities or the dream life with David.

Hornby has always been a gifted writer (High Fidelity remains one of my all-time favorite novels), but this is probably his most polished effort solely as a screen writer. An Education is a much more entertaining film than its trailers seem to display. It goes beyond the ho-hum coming of age tale most audiences will expect, and instead is a fiercely emotional, legitimately funny story about the many lessons life can teach us. It never mulls around in sentiment or melodrama. It trusts in its characters and their personalities just enough that the audience falls in love with them--even if they are scoundrels (or turn out to be scoundrels).

This is the first film I've ever seen by Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig (though she has a film on her IMDb page--Wilber Wants To Kill Himself--which seems intriguing based on title alone) and what I believe is her first English language film. I appreciate the modesty with which Scherfig tells the story, never allowing the camera to get in the way. Not to say that the film isn't filled with visually stunning shots and exceptional work by cinematographer John de Borman. Visual work this subtle and unobtrusive very rarely gets acknowledged, but it's the prudence behind the camerawork which makes it so perfect for this film.

The film contains what is probably the greatest ensemble of performances so far this year. As Jack, Jenny's micromanaging father, Alfred Molina is allowed to express himself in histrionics at times, but always gives Jack that small glimmer of self-awareness that always redeems him. As the less-than-genius but glamorous Helen, Rosamund Pike is quite brilliant. Witty but simple, judgmental but sweet, Pike gives a performance which is just as star-making as Mulligan's. Emma Thompson and Olivia Williams both give small but effective performances as administrators at Jenny's school, both showcasing adverse reactions to Jenny's budding rebellion. As David, Sarsgaard is quite good as well, even if his accent isn't exactly stellar*.

But I won't kid you, this film is the undeniable showcase for Carey Mulligan. In a premiere performance, Mulligan's beauty and charm hearkens back to the performances from Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly in the late 50's. Perhaps it's better that Mulligan was twenty-two when playing the sixteen-year-old Jenny, because that transformation (that education, if you will) feels so organic. We feel for Jenny even in her moments of most naivete. Watching Mulligan in An Education is like watching the beginning of something that is sure to be great. Like seeing Brando in Streetcar or Meryl Streep in The Deer Hunter. I will be shocked if she isn't given an Oscar nomination (and I'll be disappointed if she doesn't win it all).

I loved the practicality in this movie (which may be a round-about way of saying I simply love this movie). Hornby and Scherfig were a perfect combination it seems, and their collaboration lead to something not only beautiful but invigorating and impactful. Some could say that An Education is drab (that's what I thought when I saw the trailer), but its the meticulous nature with which the story evolves that makes it so entertaining. Sometimes the lessons we learn in life are hard, but they will not always be disparaging. I feel that most people will take the lesson Jenny learns in this film, if it required the same curriculum.

*I can't decide which was worse: Ewan McGregor trying to be American in "Men Who Stare At Goats" or Sarsgaard trying to be English in this film. In both cases, the accents are so bad that you eventually just shrug your shoulders and give up. Not worth getting worked up over those types of details.

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