Ann Hornaday reviews 'An Education,' with charming Brit Carey Mulligan

A British school girl (Carey Mulligan) finds herself in a relationship with a charming older man (Peter Sarsgaard).
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 30, 2009

The British actress Carey Mulligan delivers a quietly astonishing performance in "An Education," a beguiling little film that, with deceptive restraint and forthrightness, opens up worlds of roiling, contradictory emotions.

"Action is character," someone remarks at one point in this lyrical, refreshingly clear-eyed account of a young woman's coming of age. That truism bears noting throughout the adamantly unsentimental lesson that follows, in which morality is best revealed in behavior, not honeyed words.

Based on a memoir by Lynn Barber, "An Education" tells the story of Jenny (Mulligan), a 16-year-old high school student in suburban London, who in 1961 glumly anticipates inheriting all the strictures of 1950s womanhood, with no notion of the sexual and feminist revolutions that lie in wait. The only child of a middle-class couple with fierce ambitions, Jenny is on her way to Oxford, where she'll presumably meet a young man willing to attach her to his coattails and safely install her within the unassailable precincts of bourgeois respectability.

That's the plan, anyway. And it's a scheme that the precocious, pretty Jenny accepts with only an occasional sardonic quibble, until a rainy day when she's offered a ride home from school by David (Peter Sarsgaard), a good-looking, ingratiating older man who insists he's interested only in the well-being of her cello. After a few more impromptu encounters, Jenny and David begin to date, and suddenly Jenny's world of Latin declensions and "Jane Eyre" is carbonated with a heady cocktail of concerts, nightclubs and the slow, deliciously slippery slope of sexual seduction.

Adapted by screenwriter Nick Hornby ("High Fidelity") and director Lone Scherfig ("Italian for Beginners"), "An Education" makes for a near-perfect cinematic experience, plunging viewers into the world of London just as it's on the verge of swinging, as seen through the besotted eyes of a girl longing to break free of English provincialism and her parents' expectations.

Reared on a steady diet of practicality and postwar striving, Jenny aches for French films, Jacques Brel and "people who know lots about lots." That's a fitting description of David, whose own murky career ("buying and selling, this and that") suggests a tantalizing, slightly dangerous worldliness.

For nearly all its 100-minute running time, "An Education" builds into a delicate, elegant model of structure and pacing, allowing the audience to experience firsthand the methodical thrill of David's expert wooing; the scenes unfold with gentle, unforced inevitability, but seem shot through with the trembling energy of something fragile coming into bloom. The filmmakers prove to be as adept at reassuring misdirection as David himself, as viewers sense that disaster might well be looming but are still likely to swoon right along with Jenny as she tastes life's aesthetic and sensual pleasures for the first time.

Such a master of manipulation is David that when he meets Jenny's mother and exclaims that he didn't know Jenny had a sister, filmgoers can see why the older woman falls for it, even while they heed the dangers it signals. As Jenny herself notes at one point, silly teenage girls are always being seduced by glamorous older men, but what "An Education" portrays with such appalling (and improbably amusing) clarity is the complicity of Jenny's parents in their daughter's alluring, perilous flirtation with adulthood.

A confounding, contradictory jumble of hopes, fears and denial propel this finely observed film, especially when they're driving Jenny's father, Jack, played in a masterfully overbearing performance by Alfred Molina. An unrepentant social climber with a neurotic investment in his daughter's achievements, Jack is even more vulnerable to David's smooth talk than Jenny herself. When David offhandedly mentions he's visiting his friend "Clive" (a.k.a. C.S. Lewis) at Oxford the following weekend, Jack all but packs Jenny's negligee for the trip.

As tempting as it would be to portray Jack as a buffoon or, worse, a monster, "An Education" doesn't dismiss him so easily. The anxieties and self-deceptions that drive Jack bring to mind so many real-life characters in the ongoing morality tale of contemporary media -- those exemplars of parental opportunism who provide such ripe fodder for ritual demonization, whether it's a mother sending her 13-year-old daughter to be photographed by Roman Polanski, or Balloon Dad Richard Heene.

More than teen angst

Indeed, as it adroitly navigates the line between explaining and exonerating, "An Education" presents American audiences with an unsettling view, not just of questionable parental motivations but also of teenage sexuality itself. For all her dissembling bravado, Jenny's uncanny self-possession and sense of autonomy look downright radical within a culture more accustomed to viewing teen girls' sexual awakening as reason for hysteria ("Thirteen"), burlesque ("American Pie") or gothic sublimation ("Twilight," which arguably offers the movies' Platonic ideal of an affair between an adolescent girl and, like, a way older man).

With her captivating, catlike poise and knowing self-assurance, Mulligan's Jenny is that rarity in cinema: a character we've never met before, standing serenely apart from the usual victims and vixens, instead approaching sex as of a sensuous piece with the good food, music and art she so avidly craves. Mulligan, who has deservedly earned status as this season's It girl for her performance, was 22 when she played young Jenny, which turns out to be just right for a character who convincingly persuades almost everyone -- including herself -- that she is wise beyond her years.

A well-cast ensemble

As regally as Mulligan dominates "An Education," it can be most richly appreciated as a smart, vivacious ensemble piece, every bit as harmonically layered as the chamber concert that David takes Jenny to on their first date. With his open, wholesome face and silky demeanor, Sarsgaard has been perfectly cast as a man capable of inspiring trust as well as more insinuating feelings of menace.

And Rosamund Pike, who with Dominic Cooper plays David's louche best friends, might be the movie's most lethally funny secret weapon, delivering her character's misreadings of Jenny's casual, erudite asides with deadpan earnestness. (Emma Thompson deserves special mention for her withering portrayal of Jenny's astringent headmistress, her performance all the more memorable for comprising only two scenes.)

So deft is each performance in "An Education," and so skillfully does Scherfig weave them into a seamless, spontaneous whole, that the film's final three minutes come as a particularly unwelcome shock, hurtling viewers through a perfunctory montage entirely out of keeping with the spirit of a film that's been so meticulously composed and calibrated. Not only does the epilogue feel gratuitous, but it strikes a tone-deaf note of clunky literalism in a movie that derives its greatest strength from resisting pat answers. Like the wonderfully fragile yet assured heroine at its center, "An Education" is at its best when it leaves the pretty pink bows behind.

An Education

(100 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for mature themes involving sexual content, and for smoking.

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