Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Love: An Education

An Education follows a fairly straightforward premise; younger, underage girl falls for rich, debonair older man with the ability to charm the pants off girls and parents alike. Surprise, surprise, he’s just as slimy as you expected and she gets an education in life and love. I expected a Police song “wet bus stop” and all to start playing. Been there, seen that.

But director Lone Scherfig’s film is unconventional in its delivery. Nick Hornby’s screenplay (based on Lynn Barber’s memoir which, sadly cannot be purchased in the U.S.) is hilarious, intelligent and never trite or sappy, unusual territory for this sort of coming of age yarn. Beyond the script, the performances also deserve credit for transforming the film from boring to success. Lead Carey Mulligan is entirely natural and charming. While she easily shows the na├»ve arrogance we expect from Jenny, Mulligan never comes off as the annoying rebellious teenager or pretentious pseudo intellectual, making her watchable and likeable. It also makes her return to earth sobering in its sincerity and her fall from grace both upsetting and humorous. It’s hard not to laugh along with Rosamund Pike’s skillfully jaded and flaky Helen when Jenny throws French into their conversation like any too-cool-for-school-teen would have done in the presence of such money and beauty.

Pike and onscreen boyfriend Dominic Cooper are one of the great strengths of the film, their facial expressions narrating the film on a sub-textual level that gives it more depth. Alfred Molina also gives a startlingly complex performance as Jenny’s father. Again, while he could have fallen into a bumbling caricature, he makes it sweet and earnest, giving the film a dose of reality that keeps it engaging. Peter Sarsgaard’s performance as the seducer David is not overly impressive, falling into his usual creepy undertones, but his accent succeeds where I expected it to fail miserably. It's here that the movie falls flat just a bit. Jenny and David's relationship never feels quite as creepy or as passionate as it should, a fact that removes the luster from an otherwise stunning film if pondered too closely.

In addition to the performances, my favorite part of the film was a message that lay between the lines. Jenny’s time at school with her no nonsense headmistress (the beautifully glib Emma Thompson) and her exasperated well-meaning teacher Ms. Stubbs (Olivia Williams) is never quite the center of the story, acting as more of a foil to her exploits with David. But Jenny’s interactions with Ms. Stubbs and even the headmistress reveal a girl power message that can’t be ignored. They know how limiting early 60’s life is for an average girl. They understand why Jenny wants to escape and the instant bonding session that occurs between the older and younger generation as a result is moving and instantly recognizable. It leaves you with a surprisingly upbeat story and a big smile on your face.

It’s great fun, moving entertainment in a beguiling package despite its standard messages about the big bad wolf hiding underneath fancy sports cars and trips to Paris.

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