Theatrical Review: AN EDUCATION
Writers: Lynn Barber (memoir), Nick Hornby (screenplay)
Director: Lone Scherfig
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Olivia Williams, Alfred Molina, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Lone Scherfig's AN EDUCATION earned Sundance's 2008 Audience Award (World Cinema - dramatic) and a heady amount of buzz for its young star, Carey Mulligan. The 60s-set film, based on Lynn Barber's memoir of the same name, chronicles Mulligan's Jenny breaking free from her boring schoolgirl life by taking up with an older charmer of a man, David (Peter Sarsgaard). Jenny's life, previously dedicated to scholarship and the pursuit of acceptance into Oxford, changes nearly overnight after meeting David, turning into a decadent whirlwind of contemporary delights - jazz music, fine restaurants, jaunts to France. But what is an educated girl to do with such a man, such a life?
Jenny is truly too smart for her (or anyone's, for that matter) good, and it frequently feels as if Jenny is the one educating everyone else. She's not even the most wide-eyed of the bunch - Sarsgaard's David gets dreamy before Jenny does, as he starts to approach their situation and relationship with more emotion, even as Jenny is attempting to view it rationally and practically. Jenny is concerned in making the best life she can for herself, whether that includes being with David or going to Oxford, or even something else entirely. She's a pleasure-seeker, but not in the self-serving way we may have come to expect from such a classification.
The real draw of AN EDUCATION are the performances. Mulligan, whose first role was in Joe Wright's PRIDE & PREJUDICE in 2005 (which, you may remember, also starred Pike), is the heart, soul, and light of the film. Her work as Jenny is one of the finest performances by any actress this year. AN EDUCATION is a star-maker for Mulligan in the truest sense of the phrase, and is unquestionably her breakthrough. Sarsgaard turns in a performance that eloquently straddles the line between charming and creepy. It's easy to see why Jenny falls for him, easy to see why everyone believes him, and his ultimate character reveal is a fine piece of work. Alfred Molina as Jenny's father, Olivia Williams as her favorite teacher, and Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike as David's hedonistic cohorts all add significantly to the value of the film.
The film bustles along amusingly enough for the first seventy minutes or so, giving the audience real laughs at the hands of manners, classism, the value of education, the frustrations of family, even racism. The music, costuming, and social ticks will please 60s aficionados. And Jenny blossoms, from dress to attitude, as Mulligan easily grows Jenny before our eyes. Even when she is funny and light, there is a worldweariness about Jenny that makes her haunting. She is what will stick with you long after the hows and whys of AN EDUCATION float away.
The third act is kicked off by a twist that is not so much a twist as an extended reveal of something wholly inevitable to anyone paying attention. The tone and thrust of the film changes dramatically then, and it (unfortunately) highlights the choppiness of certain portions of the script and pacing that have become increasingly harder to ignore as we wind on. It's a strange weakening of a strong film, and it's what ultimately keeps AN EDUCATION from giving its viewers a full film PhD in the art of the coming-of-age story.