Friday, October 23, 2009

Review: An Education

Newcomer Carey Mulligan dazzles in this heartfelt evocation of early '60s London

An Education is a near-perfect little film, a poignant depiction of England in 1961 – a time when there was nothing remotely "swinging" about London. Of course, we now know that a couple of years later, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Carnaby Street fashion would make the English capital the epicenter of all things cool and magical.

But those seismic shifts seem unimaginable at this time, and 16-year-old Jenny (Carey Mulligan ) is bored out of her mind, stuck in the bland suburb of Twickenham. She's an ace student at a state-funded girls' school, an only child whose every move is scrutinized by a domineering but loving father (played with deft comic timing by Alfred Molina) and a docile mother (Cara Seymour).

Jenny seeks refuge from the tedium by retreating to her bedroom and singing along to très hip French singer Juliette Gréco. The intellectually precocious teen often inserts French phrases into conversation, and she's quite taken with the absurdism of Albert Camus's novel L’Étranger. To Jenny, France represents everything that's exotic and sophisticated — it's the anti-Twickenham of her imagination. She dreams of going to Paris, where people "wear black and listen to Jacques Brel."

But she's also hatched a larger, more realistic escape plan: the goal of being accepted into the prestigious University of Oxford. It's only an hour away, and tantalizingly close to offering Jenny the independence she craves.

Everything seems to be going according to plan: her middle-class parents encourage her to attend the upscale university, and Jenny even notches top marks for her essay "Passion and practicality in Jane Eyre." Soon, however, she's swept up into an entirely different world and forced to deal with issues of passion and practicality in her own life.

A major detour arrives in the form of David (Peter Sarsgaard), a mysterious man in his early 30s who provides an instant ticket to the glamorous life. Along with his pals Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike), Jenny heads off to posh nightclubs, fine art auctions, dog races, even her beloved Paris. It's a far cry from her drab world of school orchestra concerts and Latin homework. Gorging on a diet of refinement, romance and fun times, Jenny starts to question the value of a formal education.

 Danish director Lone Scherfig works wonders with her cast. Mulligan was 22 when the film was shot, but she's absolutely convincing as a book-smart teen who yearns to be an elegant grown-up, yet isn't ready for the harsh realities of the adult world. It's a career-making performance. Sarsgaard is also note-perfect as the beguiling older man who charms both Jenny and her wary parents. He delivers a nuanced take on the role — a combination of besotted innocence, self-delusion and ruthless manipulation.

The supporting players in this Brit cast are also first-rate, including Olivia Williams as an English lit teacher concerned about Jenny's academic progress and Emma Thompson as the headmistress who sharply rebukes Jenny's impulsive behaviour. Cooper and Pike shine as 24-hour party people whose vacuous lives serve as both an enticement and a warning to Jenny.

Novelist Nick Hornby (About a Boy, High Fidelity) wrote the taut script, adapting it from a brief memoir by British journalist Lynn Barber (see sidebar). He transforms her personal essay into a droll meditation on the efficacy of various forms of education – textbooks and teachers versus the "university of life," as David refers to it.

Given Hornby's precise eye for pop culture, it's not surprising that the period detail is sumptuous. In terms of fashion and music, An Education rivals Mad Men for early 1960s accuracy. The cinematography tells a great deal of the story, contrasting the monochrome flatness of the sparsely furnished Twickenham home with the eye-popping colour and energy of the famed Walthamstow greyhound racetrack.

There's nothing especially innovative here: An Education is a coming-of-age story, part of a sub-genre we've seen dozens of times before. It's just that you rarely see them written or acted quite this well, or with this level of empathy.

By Greig Dymond