As the mainstream fall failures fade out of theaters, so the impressive dramas of Oscar season begin rolling in. Among the first wave of these is the period dramedy “An Education,” an engrossing coming-of-age tale set in 1961 London, and a lesson in solid feel-good filmmaking.
Jenny (Carey Mulligan), an intelligent 16 year old in an all-female private school, has everything she needs to get into her dream college, Oxford. She plays cello in the school orchestra, is at the top of her class academically and seems to have her future all mapped out. But one rainy afternoon, a ride home from a kind, pleasant stranger changes all of that.
David (Peter Sarsgaard), a wealthy and handsome 30-something, meets her and takes an active interest in Jenny, charming not only the young girl but her protective parents as well (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour). Suddenly, Jenny’s life undergoes an extravagant change as David starts taking her to classical music concerts, high-class dinner clubs, antique art auctions and day trips to the country, opening her eyes to a whole new, much more exciting lifestyle.
At first, Jenny feels a little out of place with David and friends Danny (Dominic Cooper), his business partner and a sly aristocrat, and Helen (Rosamund Pike), a bodacious but clueless blonde. But she quickly assimilates to their higher, less responsible and constantly fun standard of living, slowly forsaking her rigid Oxford-bound education plan for a life of never-ending adventures instead.
While that may all sound like a wonderful, quirky romantic comedy, the movie only feels that whimsical up until a bit past the halfway point. As Jenny learns more about and grows closer to David, she also becomes aware of his somewhat dubious source of income, and must make new choices regarding the future of her life. With this narrative shift, the tone of “An Education” gradually evolves from light and upbeat to meaningful and realistic. The film develops a deeper meaning and message, making it one of the most heartfelt, wholly enjoyable movies of the year.
What’s really remarkable about “An Education” is its all-around level of great quality. Starting with the script, writer Nick Hornby (“About a Boy,” “High Fidelity”) has crafted an engaging, touching story based on a memoir by Lynn Barber, complete with witty, believable dialogue and likable, relatable characters. Hornby is sure to receive a nomination for best adapted screenplay come awards time.
As for Danish director Lone Scherfig, she’s done a fantastic job on her first English film. Despite the fact that an older man dating a teenage girl half his age should feel weird, creepy and politically incorrect, Scherfig handles their romance carefully and tactfully so that it almost always feels natural, acceptable and meant to be. She also seems to have been inspired by the Audrey Hepburn classic “Roman Holiday,” since many of the scenes where Jenny and David are having fun together, particularly a lovely montage of the two in Paris, feel like “Roman Holiday” reworked in a new setting. There’s even a subtle twist in the last act which proves quite effective, specifically because Scherfig chooses not to play it up much.
Additionally, the 23 year-old Mulligan may just be this generation’s Audrey Hepburn. Not only does she look similar, but Mulligan also gives a performance of naïve maturity worthy of Hepburn, and I found myself caring about her from the beginning to end. While she won’t win best actress like Audrey did for her breakout role, chances are she’ll still be nominated.
Sarsgaard, too, is a very likable leading actor, and a delightfully entertaining fellow to watch. While his scheming eyes say he’s hiding something, he’s an absolute charmer, and the scenes where he easily wins over Jenny’s parents, particularly her father, are full of clever wit. And the chemistry between Sarsgaard and Mulligan is outstanding, with their relationship always feeling genuine.
In fact, no one in the cast disappoints. The whole ensemble is spot-on, with Molina as Jenny’s father leaving the biggest impression among the supporting players. The acute attention to detail and lavish, ever-changing locales always keep the settings fresh and interesting, so the movie never hits a dry spot. Complementing the backdrops are ‘60s cars, outfits and furnishings and through the focused, superb cinematography, you’re transported straight into Jenny’s world.
Those looking for simple, formulaic popcorn entertainment may be turned off by the later section of the film, but anyone else will be swept away for nearly two hours by this thoughtful period piece. “An Education” won’t be the best of this season’s prestige pictures, but it’s still a unique gem that’s more than worth learning about.
Three out of Four Stars