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Movie Review: An Education

By Philip Martin

This article was published November 20, 2009 at 4:00 a.m.


Jenny (Carey Mulligan) explores Paris on the arm of her sophisticated older boyfriend David (Peter Sarsgaard) in <em>An Education</em>.

— An Education is about the British preoccupation with status, about the aspirant bourgeois and the outliers who exist beyond convention, in a moveable feast of booze, sex and petty criminality. It’s a surprisingly gentle film given it’s about a precocious 16-year-old honor student’s affair with a cad twice her age - an affair that occurred in a time and place where indiscretions had large consequences.

Set in suburban London in 1961 and based on a brief memoir by British journalist Lynn Barber (first published in Granta) that was turned into a screenplay by Nick Hornby, An Education is light, funny and sophisticated in a way that seems custom-cut for consumers in Mad Men withdrawal. Nevermind that upon any sort of reflection it’s a pish posh Lolita knock-off.

I say that with all affection, because although I didn’t believe a scene of it, I was charmed by An Education, particularly Peter Sarsgaard’s remarkably winning portrayal of the Humbert Humbert-like seducer David, a self-effacing con man whose delight in young Jenny (Carey Mulligan) may be the only true thing in his orbit. No, actually, that’s not quite right - David seems to take genuine pleasure in all the appurtenances of the good life, and not just because they cause Jenny’s head to spin. What’s refreshing about the movie is the sense of collaboration between these two characters, who at times seem like precocious children who’ve crashed a cocktail party.

David insinuates his way into Jenny’s life after providing her (and her cumbersome cello) a post-recital ride home. Soon he’s spiriting her off to nightclubs in the company of his society creep partner Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Danny’s moll Helen (a hilarious gum-cracking turn by Rosamund Pike).

Jenny’s sensible parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) suspend their skepticism in David’s courtly thrall, and soon he’s taking her off to Oxford, where she hopes to read English. (Or, as Helen helpfully translates, “read English books.”) While they aren’t stupid people - or bad parents - they are at least as susceptible to David’s apparent worldliness and genuine charm as is their daughter.

Such an affair - if this dalliance can be called that - may seem doomed from the outset, but the prospect of a drably circumscribed, orthodox life seems, to Jenny, worse than whatever disasters attend life with (and after) David.

Worse, she sees little evidence that her more proper role models have souls. Her favorite teacher comes across as a drudge; her headmistress (an icy Emma Thompson) is a decorous fascist. Her own parents are sweet, but tres naive.

Jenny is too, and so, even is David - in the end he seems more pathetic than manipulative, and Sarsgaard (one of our finest, most subtle actors) is wise to grant him grace. We not only believe he is smitten by Jenny, we fear he might be crushed by her.

An Education feels like what it is, which is a smart writer’s whimsical reminiscence of a youthful dalliance - actually more reflective of Hornby’s generous sensibility (his script is remarkably free of trauma) than Barber’s matter-of-fact testimony. Barber’s affair with her older man lasted two years, and her seducer “Simon” is far less empathetic than David.

No matter, the film is Jenny’s fantasy, and from her perspective, the experience was more useful than anything else. All is forgiven, if in fact there was ever anything to forgive.

MovieStyle, Pages 36 on 11/20/2009

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