Review

An Education

Director    Lone Scherfig
Starring    Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Olivia Williams, Emma Thompson, Rosamund Pike, Dominic Cooper
Release    16 OCT (US) 30 OCT (UK)    Certificate 12A
4 stars

Anna

28th October 2009

When we meet Jenny (Carey Mulligan), she lives a regimented existence of Latin homework and lectures from her father (Alfred Molina) about the importance of getting the grades to make it to Oxford University. This is 1960s Britain and the education Jenny and her peers receive shows them how to bake cakes and walk in a straight line with a book balanced on their heads.

School is boot camp to equip the girls for married life. Jenny's father Jack thinks his daughter will snare a better class of husband by attending Oxford. Jenny's fanciful notions of learning for pleasure are lost on him.

But for Jenny, life is about to get interesting. She's a bright, confident girl and all she needs is a catalyst to unleash a passionate and beautiful young woman. That catalyst is charming, worldly David (Peter Sarsgaard), an older man from a different planet to the awkward schoolboys Jenny is accustomed to.

David introduces her to concerts and jazz bars, Oxford and Paris, opening her eyes to a whole new existence. It's a glamorous, seductive coming-of-age journey for Jenny - an education of a very different kind - leaving her with some tough choices to make. She is so intoxicated by her new life that she doesn't stop to question what may lurk behind the glamorous faÁade of David and his friends.

There's not much in the film to indicate that Nick Hornby is the man behind the screenplay; it's a new direction for him and a very successful experiment. He adapted a memoir by Lynn Barber, retaining the essence of intimacy and honesty on the big screen.

The relationship between the two leads is so compelling, the audience is seduced as quickly as Jenny is. The decadent lifestyle David and his friends Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike) lead is captured with such vibrancy and careful attention to period detail that the film is genuinely transporting. Many women will inevitably develop quite a style crush on Mulligan and Pike, and rush out immediately to purchase a shift dress.

Along with the excellent Fish Tank, In The Loop and Moon, An Education leads the nominations for this year's British Independent Film Awards, and for good reason. It's a subtle film, never labouring its point. Despite the cocktail of weighty themes present - class, gender, aspiration, trust - it handles them all delicately. An Education is touching and inspiring, but above all, utterly believable.

This is largely due to an excellent ensemble cast. There isn't a bad performance in sight; even the slightly wooden Dominic Cooper is well suited to his part as David's slippery sidekick. Emma Thompson plays the matriarchal head teacher, on hand to give wayward Jenny a stern talking to at appropriate junctures during the film. Olivia Williams meanwhile is the enthusiastic young teacher who takes Jenny under her wing.

Alfred Molina as Jenny's father and Rosamund Pike as Danny's arm candy provide much of the humour in the film, though both bring poignancy to their roles simultaneously. But the whole film completely hinges on the character of Jenny, and in Carey Mulligan director Lone Scherfig and screenwriter Nick Hornby found the perfect lead. She brings vivacity to every scene she appears in, which is most of them, seeming at once young and innocent, yet knowing and world-weary.

Jenny is flawed, making ill-considered choices and harshly judging others, yet her vulnerability makes it impossible not to be captivated by her. The chemistry between Mulligan and Sarsgaard comes naturally, despite the obvious age gap.

Having made the transition from TV (most notably in the BBC's Bleak House adaptation), Mulligan now has a string of films in development, so we'll be seeing a lot more of her. And no she's not the new Keira Knightley - because Mulligan can act.

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