“Action is character,” announces Jenny, the literature loving, French speaking, cello playing, Audrey Hepburn-evoking leading lady of An Education. She’s spouting one of the oldest rules of writing, but it’s something that continues to be ignored by some filmmakers. In 2009 alone, we’ve endured picture’s whose main characters are comprised of fighting robots, GI Joe’s and, quite literally, talking statues. Therefore, while the plot of An Education may be sparse (no ancient alien hieroglyphics to decode here), the film is brimming with life thanks to a whole set of richly drawn characters. That includes the impressionable young Jenny, played by the exquisite newcomer Carey Mulligan. That name again is Carey Mulligan. Once more for good luck: Carey Mulligan. Believe me; you’ll need to remember this one.
Jenny is a 16-year-old student living in the “beige” town of Bagshot in Surrey. The year is 1961; Beatlemania is still a couple of years away and young girls are looking for something to distract themselves with. Jenny listens to French music and read Albert Camus, dreaming of the day she can leave home and study English at Oxford University. Her parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) are supportive enough to pay for her studies, but they’d much prefer if she married a suitor with deep pockets.
Enter David (Peter Sarsgaard), a funny, charming and distinguished man with eyes for our teenage heroine. He is at least twenty years older than she is and likes to be called ‘Bubl’ in the bedroom, but as far as Jenny is concerned, his flaws are far outweighed by the ‘idea’ of dating him. He listens to classical musical, has a taste for the finer things in life and offers Jenny an education she could never receive from Oxford. And he’s handsome. As Jenny gets swept up into David’s high class world, complete with cultured friends and romantic weekends away, she is forced to choose the direction of her life. So what’s it going to be? Bronte or Bubl?
An Education is based on the memoir of journalist Lynn Barber; a woman whose interview style is famous for its combative nature. In 1999, Barber told The Independent how she approaches a subject: “start … from a position of really disliking people, and then compel them to win you over.” Harsh? Maybe. Effective? Definitely. And completely understandable following the betrayals of trust she experienced in her youth, as depicted in this film. Barber’s memoir has been adapted for the screen by author Nick Hornby (About a Boy, High Fidelity). Although I’ve never been the biggest fan of Hornby’s books, I have found their cinematic translations to be mostly spectacular (although the less said about The Perfect Catch, the better). An Education matches Hornby’s best work, displaying a similarly funny, three-dimensional and realistic cavalcade of characters.
To compliment these characters, the film has been populated with every talented English actor not currently working on the Harry Potter franchise. Alfred Molina delivers yet another densely layered performance as Jenny’s easily flustered and equally easily manipulated father. Olivia Williams gives a classy and restrained performance as Jenny’s English teacher. Emma Thompson and Sally Hawkins also impress in small yet memorable roles. However, American Peter Sarsgaard surprises most as the charming David. He’s made a career for himself playing seemingly nice guys with terrible secrets, but he has never been this lovable. I mean sure, he still has a terrible secret, but British accents always make people sound polite and likable, even if they’re really not. Of course, this film is Carey Mulligan. As far as ingénues go, few have as much charisma as she does. Her performance evokes Audrey Hepburn at her sweetest and Ellen Page at her spunkiest.
Danish director Lone Scherfig brings some visual flair to the picture and the film’s first two thirds zip by in a flurry of snappy dialogue and exotic locations (including a gorgeous digression in Paris). However, the momentum is lost in the final act as the film chugs along to its inevitable conclusion. The questions raised by Jenny as she debates the merits of formal education aren’t really answered and contribute to an ultimately unsatisfying ending. But these problems are hard to focus on in the fog of the film’s overwhelming charm. Besides, you could do a lot worse than spend 100 minutes with Ms. Mulligan. Movie fans, I give you a woman worth educating yourself on.