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An Education

An Education

Rated PG-13, 95 min. Directed by Lone Scherfig. Starring Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Cara Seymour, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike, Olivia Williams, Emma Thompson.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 13, 2009

Everything about Scherfig’s coming-of-age story about a girl in the London suburb of Twickenham in 1961 is spot-on. The film tells a wonderfully nuanced story about a teenager’s longing to break free of her provincial surroundings and enter the world at large. It’s a story about her education in the university of life, an impartial proving ground that seduces many into its fold but whose revolving door is just as likely to hit you on the ass on the way out. Scherfig (Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself) directs the drama, which is based on a memoir by Lynn Barber and adapted for the screen by Nick Hornby (About a Boy, High Fidelity), with a steady but subtle hand. Crowning An Education is the central performance of Mulligan as 16-year-old Jenny: In this breakthrough role, the actress stuns us with a range that goes from dimpled schoolgirl to oh-so-sophisticated teen to Audrey Hepburn look-alike to disillusioned-but-wiser adult. Mulligan makes a lasting impression as this student living at home with her bourgeois parents while studying to take her Oxford exams. She is a girl waiting for her life to begin. She fantasizes about moving to France, smoking, wearing black, and listening to lots of Jacques Brel. She sees herself in the mold of the bohemian Juliette Gréco, whose records she pores over in her bedroom. Then into her life comes David (Sarsgaard), a man about twice her age, who dazzles her with invitations to concerts, auctions, and nightclubs. His manners and patter are so polished that he even sweeps Jenny’s parents (Molina and Seymour) off their feet. They don’t even seem to mind that he’s Jewish. Even though it occurs offscreen, the sexual relationship between the two is daring. Though set in 1961, the consensual sex portrayed here remains illegal in the U.S. in 2009. In these times, which seem angrier than ever regarding such things as Roman Polanski’s sexual activities in the Seventies, An Education may face some moral resistance. Yet there is nothing prurient about Jenny and David’s affair. Wonderful supporting work is delivered by Molina and Seymour as Jenny’s staid parents, while Cooper and Pike are also delightful as David’s best friends. As Jenny’s teacher, a single woman with her hair in a bun, Williams plays to the stereotype before shredding it to bits. It seems all girls have their moment to undergo a certain education, and the woman who teaches them about Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester may know that better than most. An Education is a distinctive story with universal appeal. (A correction of fact has been made since first publication of the review to reflect the accurate decade of Roman Polanski's sexual activities under discussion.)
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