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An Education

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An Education
Released on Friday, Oct 30 2009

Director: Lone Scherfig (interview)
Screenwriters: Nick Hornby
Starring: Carey Mulligan (interview), Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike, Olivia Williams, Emma Thompson
Running Time: 100 mins
Certificate: 12A

Move over Lindsay Lohan, Hilary Duff and the Olsen twins, and make way for the story of a teenage girl who isn't, like, a total airhead. British newcomer Carey Mulligan makes a stunning leading lady debut (and she is a lady...) in this witty yarn as Jenny, a 16-year-old girl from the London suburbs who dreams of going to Oxford University. That is, until a mysterious older man (played by Peter Sarsgaard) whisks her off into his rarefied world of glamour and sophistication, just before the sexual revolution in 1961. Lessons are learnt, but not of the bookish kind.

Funnily enough, it's boys' own novelist Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) who adapted this story from the memoir by journalist Lynn Barber and, though liberties have been taken and names changed, he paints an accurate portrait of this precocious girl which remains just as smart. Jenny is by no means perfect but she believes the opposite and is frequently top of the class in English Lit. Olivia Williams buttons up to play her teacher and Austen devotee Miss Stubbs, but Miss has a few stern words for Jenny when her attention begins to drift elsewhere. Her relationship with David, a man in his 30s (and whose status as a Jew is also controversial) becomes the talk of the school.

David literally picks Jenny up at a bus stop in the rain, and shows her that he is a man of great culture because, he says, he doesn't want her cello to get wet. The fact that Jenny is wearing a school uniform makes the scene a tad disturbing and yet, when he invites her to attend a music recital, it doesn't feel entirely out of line. David is respectful of Jenny (not touchy feely) and appreciates her intellect, so it's easy to see why she might be attracted to him. Even more bizarrely, Peter Sarsgaard, who is known for playing many a creep, is actually quite charming in the role. So much so that Jenny's strict father (a hilariously uptight Alfred Molina) gives the relationship his blessing. Soon, Jenny's Oxford dream is shoved to the backburner.

Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig, who directed the underrated Scottish drama Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself (2002), has a beautifully gentle touch with what could be very inflammatory material. As the couple grow more intimate behind closed doors, David is revealed to be more childlike than his lover and a bit of a fantasist. There's also an air of mystery about him and we're kept guessing about his motives (which aren't purely sexual). At the same time it becomes apparent that Jenny is less in love with David, more so with the idea of a high-class lifestyle. Because of that, David is, in a way, more vulnerable than Jenny. Scherfig handles these complex dynamics without even a whiff of controversy. All at once it feels natural, ominous and wryly amusing.

As David's dodgy business partner, it's Dominic Cooper who hints at his big secret; that, between lounging around in dinner suits and sipping martinis. He seems too young for the role, however, and that's underlined by having Rosamund Pike dangling off his arm in full blonde bombshell mode. She plays it all the way dumb, upping the laugh quotient, though it's a shame these supporting characters aren't fully fleshed out. Even after the truth is revealed about David, he remains somewhat of an enigma. Of course that means Mulligan makes an even bigger impact as Jenny in a role that allows her to flit between girlish uncertainty to Audrey Hepburn-like sophistication with just a simple costume change. But what makes An Education so memorable is that it's a study of a teenage girl that looks beyond face value.


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