— by JOEL CRARY —
Young Carey Mulligan is the reason to see “An Education.” Where did she come from? After four short years in the industry, the 24-year-old actress has assured herself awards and the attention of the world with this performance. We believe that Jenny is 16, vulnerable yet incredibly sharp and knowledgeable. She is ready for adulthood in most facets. Emotionally, we’re not as certain.
She meets a man who is too old for her. He shows her what life can offer beyond the preparatory halls of an early ’60s all-girl Catholic school. The film walks a thin line. Because we’re never sure of David’s (Peter Sarsgaard) angle, the story of his relationship with Jenny never quite serves as thoroughly romantic, in spite of its heartfelt (and accurate) belief that Paris is the city to begin and end love.
The two meet on a rainy afternoon. To dance around the impropriety of their age difference, David offers a ride to Jenny’s cello instead. He seems genial. They bump into each other, serendipitously it seems, and begin to spend more time together. He sees in her a progeny for a life of frequenting jazz clubs, misbehaving at art auctions and taking fiscal advantage of the elderly. He also sees her virginity, ready for the taking on her 17th birthday. Their relationship is unhealthy, and our suspicions are confirmed on the faces and in the attitudes of David’s friends Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike), who must appear to Jenny like the stars of a Godard film.
There are forces in Jenny’s life trying to direct her down certain paths. The strongest parts of Hornby’s script are moments in which Jenny’s destinies blur and cross over into one another, facilitated completely by Jenny’s intelligent outlook. She can read people, too, suiting an entirely different set of more honest purposes. Supportive teacher Ms. Stubbs (Olivia Williams) tells her that she can do anything. Jenny is pretty and clever and should go to Oxford. Jenny fires back, asking Ms. Stubbs where she attended school. She could have done anything and now she sifts through agonizing interpretations of Jane Eyre from girls who lack Jenny’s cleverness.
We are certain that David is a con man. Thank to an early scene in which Jenny’s parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) give her a hard time about her plans for education, we expect them to take a stand on David, who unexpectedly wins them over. David knows how to read people. He’s the kind of shyster who can make anyone form a near-religious belief in a great idea and make it seem as though he had nothing to do with it. He’s unlikeable, slippery and entirely different from the naive boys that are Jenny’s age. Sarsgaard is miscast in the role, sporting an awful accent and lack of emotion.
“An Education” has genuine moments that grab a laugh, most of them courtesy of Molina. Jenny’s father is king of his castle and not nearly as smart as his daughter. He buys a lie about meeting C.S. Lewis hook, line and sinker with the observation, “Becoming a famous author isn’t the same as knowing one.” The conflict of near-Puritan values with emerging feminist ideas in the house make for the film’s best scenes. Though Jenny is seemingly able to finish her parents’ thoughts two conversations ahead of time, she has enough respect to keep her rebellion to a winking hush.
I found myself underwhelmed with the end result. Things finalize as they should for Jenny, who is on her way to becoming both old and wise. The truth about David is revealed and suspicions are confirmed. The heartbreak in Jenny’s situation is one best mended with a knowing sigh. The film is based on the autobiography of British journalist Lynn Barber, and in Mulligan’s portrayal of the woman, we are reminded of all of the great things an education can awaken inside of us as it simultaneously threatens us with an intense emotional loss. This is in due credit to Mulligan, whose lust to be a part of the adult art world is infectious. It’s easy to see where she’s coming from. Where she’s going is up to her.
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Click here to see a clip from “An Education.”
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