Friday, October 23, 2009
An Education ***1/2
Director: Lone Scherfig
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina
Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike, Cara Seymour
Olivia Williams, Emma Thompson, Sally Hawkins
"Coming of age" in films has become synonymous with cliché, unoriginality and by the numbers storytelling.
Therefore it's a mystery how Lone Scherfig is able to make "An Education" so damn refreshing.
The story, based on journalist Lynn Barber's memoirs turned into a wonderful screenplay by Nick Hornby, takes place in 1961 London, where 16-year-old Jenny (Mulligan) finds herself involved in a romantic affair with David (Sarsgaard) a man twice her age.
They meet one inconspicuous rainy afternoon when David offers Jenny's cello, and not its owner, a ride. She walks next to the car surprised and more than charmed by David's odd behavior and before soon she's accepting an invitation to go with him to a concert.
But Jenny lives with her parents (Molina and Seymour both simply extraordinary) and before she can go to a concert with David, he must seduce them.
Jenny's parents have planned her life ahead for her, therefore she is enrolled in an exclusive girls' school, which along with proficient extra curricular activities will pave her way to Oxford, where she will find a husband and live peacefully.
The notion of happiness isn't questioned or perhaps remains implicit upon achieving economic and social tranquility.
In such a way Jenny's parents show no objection to David taking their daughter out. Her dad just points out he's "a Jew", but they allow their relationship to flourish.
Can it be that they just see the potential husband material in him despite the obvious incongruences this has with everything they have done for their daughter.
It does help that Sarsgaard is so charming playing this part.
He works around his type, and a forced British accent, by playing it cool and honest. We know that he wants to get into Jenny's pants, but he's never the menacing pedophile lurking around the playground.
His interest in Jenny in fact seems to be real, "isn't it wonderful to find a young person who wants to know things?" he asks finding himself self appointed guide in Jenny's unofficial education.
In every scene they are together he's also getting something out of Jenny that goes beyond the sexual. Sarsgaard conveys the "too good to be true" traits we can't help but fear as well as a sense that he's learning from Jenny too.
As with every character in the film, there is in him a sense of subversion. The possibility that David is taking revenge on the system by proving he can romance a girl who is in every way in a different class, is quite possible.
Same goes to his friends Danny (Cooper) and his girlfriend Helen (Pike) who bewitch Jenny with pure style and glamor. Little does she stop to see how they sustain this lifestyle with methods she might never agree with.
At first Jenny says she wants "to talk to people who know lots about lots", but in their company she is more seduced by the constant array of activities-concerts, trips to Paris, parties, pre-Raphaelite art auctions-than the actual knowledge she gets from any of it.
The problem is actually that Jenny only sees this and the flashes of humanity we get from the characters are merely nuances.
Therefore the bittersweet affection and repressed rage of Danny is brought to life beautifully by Cooper in unexpected small moments.
While Pike is brilliant as the trophy girlfriend who plays the blond card to avoid being compromised by morality and ethical issues.
Jenny, like most teenagers fails to see past their facades and impressed by their glitz becomes rebellious to the other side of the equation: her teachers.
Her English teacher (a moving Williams) asks her to contemplate her future more carefully, but Jenny assumes she's just trying to live vicariously through her, while the Headmistress (Thompson who obviously steals all her scenes) sternly reminds her the rules of society in the face of such upheavals.
But as long as she's learning more than school has to offer and imposing her newfound adulthood over her childlike classmates, Jenny remains in a world of her own.
This world is a beautiful creation at the hands of Carey Mulligan who inhabits Jenny from the moment the movie begins.
Even if we know she's a poser of sorts, who speaks French out of the blue as if it was the most natural thing in the world, there is a lovable quality to her.
She's trapped in the limbo between childhood and adulthood, trying to take too much in at once and learning the hard way.
But watch Mulligan's eyes, as they convey a lustful thirst for the unknown juxtaposed with utter innocence and you will be transfixed.
When she experiences sex she sighs before she wonders why "all that poetry about something that lasts no time at all", her life so far has been made up of what she read in books and heard in French music.
Her life after the events in the film is something made for books and music.