Director: Lone Scherfig Notable Cast: Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike, Cara Seymour
It’s easy for critics to throw out phrases like “Hilary Swank gives the first performance of the year worthy of an Oscar nomination,” especially when said actor is portraying a real-life person on screen. As is the case this year for Swank playing Amelia Earhart and Meryl Streep playing Julia Child. Both are identifiable actresses playing female pioneers. Playing somebody famous or doing a biopic is easy Oscar bait. An Education is a biographical film of sorts based on the life of a woman who got schooled in matters of love and romance. (As far as I know she was neither a chef nor flew airplanes.)
Carey Mulligan is this year’s Amy Adams, a newcomer that makes you want to sit up and notice. She gives a star-making performance as Jenny, a 16-year-old girl growing up in 1961 London. It’s the kind of performance that will have the viewers quickly Googling her name to find out what other projects she’s done. The bulk of her work has been in BBC productions like Bleak House and Northanger Abbey, and her big-screen debut was another Jane Austen adaptation as one of the Bennett sisters in Joe Wright’s interpretation of Pride & Prejudice.
How good is Mulligan in An Education? Well, she plays a character that is eight years younger than her actual age, and not once did I consider the disparity in ages. She’s luminous in her role and is drawing comparisons to Audrey Hepburn. This is especially true of her scenes in Paris where Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig paints her in images of the Breakfast at Tiffany’s star.
As the film opens, Jenny’s life is focused on getting into Oxford. Her overbearing but loving father, Jack (Alfred Molina), instructs her to avoid distractions in order to better her chances of getting accepted. Playing the cello as an extra-curricular activity is fine as long as it doesn’t conflict with Latin studies. Jack just wants what’s best for her daughter. Translation: get a good education, meet a husband, and get married. Jenny’s mum, Majorie (Cara Seymour), lends a sympathetic ear, but is a woman of few words, leaving her husband to run the household.
Jack thought he had it all planned out for his daughter; but everything changes one rainy afternoon when a handsome stranger in a slick sportster offers Jenny a ride home. He’s David (Peter Sarsgaard), a man in his thirties, maybe two decades older than Jenny. David is taken by her presence, and he uses his wit and good looks to insinuate himself into her life. You would think Jack being so strong-minded wouldn’t allow a man like David to date his daughter. But you would be wrong. David charms the pants off of the parents with fabulous tales, including one about an educator who had a profound influence on his life, C.S. Lewis.
Around David’s arm Jenny opens her eyes to the cosmopolitan lifestyle that’s she’s always dreamed of. Attending concerts and art auctions, tasting exquisite cuisine, and above else having a mature boyfriend that makes the rest of her classmates jealous. She also becomes part of David’s inner circle engaging in conversations with his friends, Danny (Dominic Cooper) and his girlfriend, Helen (Rosamund Pike).
When something is too good to be true it usually is. David’s source of income is hard to explain. Something to do with swiping art for collections and renting rooms to black families, much to the displeasure of white elderly women. Doesn’t sound like much of a living, yet he makes enough to take Jenny to Paris. He doesn’t pressure her into sex and respects her wishes to wait until she’s seventeen to lose her virginity.
An Education, based on Lynn Barber’s memoir and adapted by Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy), is a delightful little picture that doesn’t play down to its audience. Some might have suspicions about David and Jenny’s relationship and if an ulterior motive is at play, but the age of consent for an adolescent in England is sixteen. What does raise suspicion, however, is how Jenny’s insertion into the cosmopolitan lifestyle changes her views on the importance of a woman’s education.
David’s friends have simple minds yet live fascinating lives. Jenny’s schoolteacher (Olivia Williams) and headmistress (Emma Thompson) are well educated but appear boring. Can Jenny have one without the other, or is there a middle ground? That is for you to find out.
If there’s a fault to find, it’s in the last ten or fifteen minutes. After the climax it seems that Scherfig quickly gets out the broom and dustpan to cleanup the aftermath so that Jenny can pick herself up and correct a mistake. Still, it is because of Carey Mulligan’s performance as the vulnerable adolescent that you should see An Education in theatres. She is a delight and so is the film.
Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He's told that the position is his until he's dead or if "The Boss" can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here's the beer. Here's the entertainment. Now have fun. That's an order!