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Education, An
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Carey Me Away"
5 stars

Over the years, you and I have seen countless coming-of-age tales in which young and slightly naďve people get a preview of the adult world that is lying in wait for them, usually because of first love and first heartbreak, and who wind up growing and maturing in unexpected ways as the result of their adventures. Some have been excellent (“Rushmore” is pretty much the contemporary standard bearer for this particular genre) and some have been dreadful (no need to name names here) but there have been so many of them that if one hopes to get noticed by audiences and critics, it needs something special and unique to set it apart from the rest. The new film “An Education,” based on the memoir by British journalist Lynn Barber, has just that kind of unique element in its central performance from newcomer Carey Mulligan, one of the most engaging turns from a virtual unknown to hit movie screens in a while. Without her, the film would have been just another coming-of age saga, albeit one somewhat smarter and more interesting than most. With her, on the other hand, the film is pretty much essential, if only for the experience of seeing the first major work from an actress who is surely destined to become a major actress.

Set in London during the drab early-Sixties period that immediately preceded the excitement of the arrival of the Beatles and the subsequent Mod movement that made the city the cultural center of the world in a few short years, the film tells the story of Jenny (Mulligan), a smart and mature 16-year-old girl who dreams of escaping her sheltered environment, largely centered on the strict girl’s school that she attends and the unexciting parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) that she live with in a painfully drab neighborhood of Twickenham. For the most part, her escapes are limited to listening to Juliette Greco records in her room and studying hard so that she gets accepted into Oxford University but a new and unexpected path emerges one day when she makes the acquaintance of David (Peter Sarsgaard), a man who is smooth, charming, intelligent, funny, kind and, oh yeah, about twice her age. And yet, because he is smooth, charming, etc. . .he manages to win Jenny over, not to mention her parents, and before long, she is swept up into his world of chic restaurants, hip jazz clubs and intellectual conversation with fellow couple Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike). With this brand-new world opened to her, Jenny’s schoolwork begins to suffer, much to the consternation of her teacher (Olivia Williams) and headmistress (Emma Thompson), who are both convinced that she is making huge mistakes that could jeopardize her entire life if she doesn’t become aware of what is really happening before it is too late. Inevitably, it begins to seem as though the too-good-to-be-true David may indeed be too good to be true and when Jenny’s eyes are finally opened as to what is really going on, the situation forces her to grow up in heretofore unexpected ways.

“An Education” was written by novelist Nick Hornby and directed by Lone Scherfig, the Danish filmmaker best known for “Italian for Beginners” and “Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself” and their approach to this relatively familiar material is so low-key that on first glance, it may not seem as though there is really that much to it. However, if you pay close attention, you will begin to notice that there are any number of interesting things going on that aren‘t usually found in this type of film. For one thing, the attitude that it takes towards the relationship between Jenny and David is intriguing in the fact that even after things go bad, it is still honest enough to suggest that the entire experience was in many ways beneficial for Jenny in that it allowed her to finally sample the world outside her blinkered existence and to both make and learn from her own mistakes without suffering too many unfortunate consequences as a result. (This plot thread may play differently to some audiences in the wake of the recent reemergence in the news of the Roman Polanski scandal but it is useful to note Jenny is of consensual age here.) Additionally, the adults in her world are painted, for the most part, as complex individuals instead of as one-dimensional caricatures. For example, once we get to know David a little bit, we begin to understand that while he may be a bit sleazy in certain areas, his attraction to Jenny is not simply physical or because she is younger than she is--he seems to be genuinely interested in her as a person and doesn’t want to hurt her, even though his actions make such a thing inevitable. The film also does an excellent job of evoking its period through its costumes, art direction and musical choices--this is a much more difficult job than it might seem in this particular case since this particular period of British history essentially lacked any key social or cultural signifiers that would explode in a couple of years.

For these reasons and many more--the smart and sprightly dialogue from Hornby, the smooth and efficient direction from Scherfig and the unanimously excellent work from the top-notch supporting cast--it would be easy enough to recommend “An Education” but as I said before, what bumps it up into the category of a must-see is the star-making performance from Carey Mulligan as Jenny. Although she has popped up here and there in minor supporting roles in the last couple of years (she was one of the sisters in the Keira Knightley version of “Pride & Prejudice” and also turned up briefly in “Public Enemies”), this is her first big role and to say that she makes the most of it is a wild understatement. She infuses Jenny with a blend of girlishness, maturity and occasional bouts of pretentiousness that will resonate with viewers who will instantly recall this particular kind of semi-worldly girl from their own adolescence, unless they happened to be that type themselves. More importantly, she makes Jenny so likable and sympathetic that even when she begins to act in unwise ways, I continued to find myself rooting for her and hoping that she would finally begin to wise up. Yes, the camera loves her and she clearly has the kind of immediate rapport with audiences that most of the biggest movie stars possess--many a starlet over the years has been compared to the like of Audrey Hepburn but here is one of the few worthy of such a comparison. However, Mulligan’s star wattage should not get in the way of the fact that her work in “An Education” is a great performance as well--one of the best of the year--and based on the promise that she conveys here, my guess is that it will be the first of many to come in time.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=18206&reviewer=389
originally posted: 10/23/09 00:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2009 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2009 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

1/02/15 Catherine H beautiful, sensitive film which accurately evokes the era 5 stars
11/27/13 Shaun A Wonderfully acted piece made more powerful by it being based on real memoirs. 5 stars
1/18/11 millersxing Thank God that Sarsgaard isn't a scientologist or Carey would end up like Katie Holmes. 4 stars
5/18/10 Louise Love Carey's acting and the 60s style of the movie - loved it! 5 stars
2/11/10 ravenmad I walked away feeling I didn't waste my money. YES! 5 stars
12/27/09 jcanthony Great story with great acting 5 stars
11/10/09 Phineas YAY! Another "Thank God the 1960s Happened" bullshit movie! More Leftist LIES. 1 stars
10/14/09 JW Bright, cleverly written female coming-of-age story 4 stars
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  09-Oct-2009 (PG-13)
  DVD: 30-Mar-2010


  DVD: 30-Mar-2010

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