Thursday, July 29, 2010

An Education

Sometimes, simple is beautiful. So when I say that An Education is a simple film, don’t get me wrong. The setup, based on a true story adapted by famous novelist Nick Hornby, is straightforward, something out of a Police tune: a pretty 16-year-old (Jenny, played by Carey Mulligan) caught in a rainstorm gets offered a ride by a handsome older man (David, portrayed by Peter Sarsgaard). Behind the wheel of his sports car, David seems like a fantasy figure: witty, cultured, moneyed. Predictably, sparks fly.

The girl’s father, Jack (Alfred Molina), has honed her into a studying machine whose sole purpose is to pass her exams and get accepted to Oxford. Since the film is set in the early 1960s, the plan is that at college Jenny will meet a suitable man and by marrying him, rise above the middle-class suburban lifestyle her father’s been able to provide. Despite his class-climbing ambitions for his daughter, Jack has no such aspirations for himself, and faced with someone like David--who knows how to order at fancy restaurants and appreciates classical music--he’s completely cowed and easily conned. Jenny is David’s for the taking.

Now, the fact that David is not all that he seems is obvious, although the plot takes that in a few interesting directions. What’s more interesting is the questions he raises in Jenny. The girl is smart, and either despite or because of her father’s prodding, she seems to actually love learning. However, if the objective of all her hard work in school is a life of drudgery as a wife and/or a schoolteacher, then what’s the point?

Mulligan is a revelation in the role that netted her a Best Actress nomination. She has (to my eyes, at least) the most uniquely British face this side of Emily Watson, and a similar emotional transparency. I was shocked to learn that she was playing almost 10 years below her actual age, and amazed at the way she could transform, from one shot to the next, from vulnerable teen to world-weary adult and back again. Sarsgaard matches her with his performance as a guy who’s so slick, he’s actually kind of clueless. This film, Kinsey, and the Center of the World complete a trilogy in which Saarsgard supplants James Spader as Hollywood's "awkward/kinky sex guy." For the rest of the cast, Molina, Rosamund Pike, and Olivia Williams stand out in supporting roles, each pushing Jenny toward a different concept of adulthood. Very highly recommended.

Possible double feature: It’s hard to pair a movie I really enjoyed with one that I didn’t, but this movie made me think of Benoit Jacquot’s A Tout De Suite. In many ways, the stories are shadows of each other--based on true stories, featuring young women who aim to flee a dull bourgeois lifestyle. That they work out as near-complete opposites may say something about the contrast between English and French mindsets, or maybe the difference between an early 60s vs mid-70s setting.

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