Tuesday, November 24, 2009

An Education Staff Review

From the first bouncy notes of its opening credits, “An Education” springs onto the screen with all the energy and joie de vivre of a bevy of chattering schoolgirls, and maintains this breezy pace and an appropriately, refreshingly lighthearted tone through to the very last frame. Carey Mulligan, playing the luminous, precocious protagonist Jenny, has been repeatedly likened by critics to Audrey Hepburn — and while her charm and expressiveness are a little reminiscent of Hepburn in her breakout role in “Roman Holiday,” Mulligan is a delight as Jenny not because she is pretty and perfect, but because Jenny is naïve and arrogant, confused and disillusioned, just like so many other bright teenagers galloping headfirst toward the humbling place that is the real world.

The film, set in post-war, pre-Beatles Britain, centers upon Jenny’s budding relationship with David (Peter Sarsgaard), a charming thirtysomething man of questionable repute, who picks her up one rainy afternoon on the pretense of keeping her cello dry. One can almost read her mind as the two sit in David’s car chatting: This man is intoxicatingly sophisticated compared to the boys Jenny is used to — is the age difference simply what it takes to keep up with a sixteen-year-old girl praised by teachers for her cleverness and groomed for Oxford by her parents? It seems that way to Jenny, at least.

David’s courtship of Jenny, juxtaposed with the pitiable-yet-humorous efforts of one of her classmates, gradually progresses. His worldliness and affability help him win over Jenny’s well-intentioned petty bourgeois parents, played brilliantly by Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour, who seem just as dazzled by his world of fine art, nightclubs, and spontaneous jaunts to Paris as Jenny is. All they want is for their little girl to have a more prosperous, more glamorous life than they’ve had, and David seems to be offering one — for free.

The story — criticized by some as “safe” and “predictable” — is admittedly a fairly straightforward coming-of-age tale. But the conventional plot is precisely what allows the rest of the film to shine: Mulligan and Molina are tender, humorous and wonderfully real, Olivia Williams (“Rushmore”) and Dominic Cooper (“The History Boys”) provide solid support, and Emma Thompson is hilarious and horrid as the cold-hearted headmistress. A dynamite soundtrack is present throughout — with the exception of a very out-of-place modern number during the final credits — featuring less predictable artists, like Mel Tormé instead of Frank Sinatra, for instance, who give the film a vibrant atmosphere without being so familiar as to distract viewers. The production design, costumes and makeup are slick and stylized without forfeiting accuracy, making pre-swinging London look as pristine and chilly as a glittering Swarovski figurine.

The unrelenting lightness of “An Education” is what makes the film truly great; director Lone Sherfig and writer Nick Hornby allow the darker moments to flit by in a way that creates a gripping sense of tension as the older and wiser audience realizes the dangers Jenny is dancing frightfully close to. Humorous moments, too, are peppered throughout, particularly whenever things threaten to take a turn for the sentimental. (“If it does happen, it will never happen again,” says Jenny before sleeping with David. Why? Well, she clarifies, the first time can only happen once, can’t it?) Though the resolution of this fairly brisk film is a bit rushed, not a minute of any of it is dull. “An Education” will be opening at The Loft this Friday.

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