Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Lone Sherfig
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Olivia Williams, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike, Cara Seymour, Emma Thompson, Sally Hawkins.
A charming older man seduces an innocent 16-year-old schoolgirl. But before you put on your raincoats and rush out for a spell of heavy breathing and lascivious entertainment, take note that An Education is no Lolita or Damage. Based on a short memoir written by British journalist and author Lynne Barber, the film is a beautifully filmed, sensitive and intelligent coming of age drama. Superbly expanded by writer Nick Hornby (About A Boy, Hi Fidelity, etc), there is a heartbreaking quality and honesty to this story.
Set in London in the early 1960’s, the film centres on Jenny Miller (newcomer Carey Mulligan), a bright and spirited young schoolgirl who is aiming to get a scholarship to study at Oxford. Supported by her rather old-fashioned parents Jenny is studying all the right subjects, ticking all the right boxes with her interest in music, and joining the right groups. But one rainy afternoon she accepts a ride home from David (Peter Sarsgaard), a charming and articulate stranger twice her age, who ingratiates his way into her family.
With her archly conservative parents willingly turning a blind eye, David takes Jenny to a number of sophisticated events. Instead of gaining a proper school education, Jenny is getting a taste of the finer things in life – string concertos, auctions, fancy restaurants, and even weekend trips to Paris. Her relationship scandalises her school friends. But when she learns the real truth about David she sees her future suddenly vanishing before her eyes.
Danish director Lone Sherfig (Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself, etc) leaves behind the constraining trappings and affectations of her former background in the Dogma school here, and the film is all the better for it. Sherfig’s sympathetic direction brings to life the film’s subtext of the changing social attitudes, sexual liberation, generational shift and youthful sense of rebellion that characterised London immediately before the ‘60’s began to swing. Her subtle and restrained handling of the material is complemented by the fine performances of the wonderful ensemble cast that also includes Dominic Cooper (from Mama Mia!, etc), Rosamund Pike, and Cara Seymour.
Mulligan is a real find, and her confident reading of the character manages to capture Jenny’s naivety, innocence, sense of curiosity and also suggests wisdom beyond her tender years. Her transformation from childlike insouciance to womanhood is beautifully portrayed. Olivia Williams also registers strongly as her spinster teacher who warns Jenny of the pitfalls of her dangerous liaison. Alfred Molina is also excellent as her father, and he gets some of the film’s best lines, which he delivers with an ironic relish. Emma Thompson makes the most of her few brief scenes as the prim headmistress.
Usually cast as the nice guy, Sarsgaard avoids making his reptilian David the overt predator of similarly themed films. He does not have the sort of overly creepy persona that would make his relationship with Jenny feel uncomfortably unsettling or exploitative. Mulligan and Sarsgaard appeared opposite each other on Broadway in The Seagull, and they develop a natural rapport here that makes the depth of their relationship work beautifully.
Hornby’s carefully crafted script draws a wonderful parallel between the strictures of formal education and the messiness of real life experiences. An Education is a fine, intelligent and sensitive film that neatly sidesteps a potentially controversial and cringe-worthy plot development.