An Education

An Education

****1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Based on a memoir by journalist Lynn Barber, and adapted for the screen by Nick Hornby, this is the story of bright young thing Jenny (Carey Mulligan), who, at 16, falls for a much older smoothie (Peter Sarsgaard).

It is 1961, and Jenny, has spent her entire life being groomed up by her parents for Oxford – “After I’ve been to university I’m going to be French”, she declares. It seems nothing can halt her progressing to the point where she can “talk to people who know lots and lots”. Of course, the irony of most 16-year-olds’ lives is that, despite vaunting ambitions, the education of the film’s title comes in many forms, with the hardest to beat (and quite probably learn) being life-experience.

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So when the witty, languidly suave David enters her life talking, of course, about lots and lots – think Ravel, jazz, Paris! - she is soon caught up in the sweet-sounding, near-sighted throes of romance. And it’s not just Jenny who falls for David. Her mum (Cara Seymour) and dad (Alfred Molina) become torn between the urge to see their daughter climb the social strata by using her head and the idea that maybe a relationship with David is a quick pass to higher society. Of course, those looking in can see it is likely to all end in tears.

Although we are talking age old themes here – first love, dodgy geezers, questions of class – the material is spectacularly well handled. Hornby’s script mixes comedy with more emotionally heavyweight issues in a way which lends a veracity to the story and director Lone Scherfig has the lightest of hands on the tiller. The look of the film evokes the period and her camerawork has a playful aspect but never gets in the way of the story.

Much will, deservedly, be made of Mulligan’s performance. She is terrific here, one of the most promising young British actresses for many a long year and one who could easily go on to carve out the sort of career Kate Winslet has. Because of this, however, it is possible that Sarsgaard’s wonderful portayal of David may be cruelly overlooked. David is the sort of role Colin Firth used to pick up, but it is doubtful he would ever have managed to strike such a careful balance between desirable and dodgy as Sarsgaard does.

It would have been very easy for his character to slip into sleaze, alienating the audience and making it hard to see what Jenny sees in him. But Sarsgaard – helped by incredibly smart scripting and direction – always seems to be just either on the debonair side of dodgy or on the dodgy side of debonair.

If there is a criticism to be levelled at the film it is that some of the subsidiary characters – Jenny’s mum and a teacher (Olivia Williams) who tries to convince her to keep on the straight and narrow – are a little flat, but this may well be down to the source memoir rather than Scherfig and Hornby’s interpretation. This is a minor quibble, however, is a sea of quality. Coming-of-age has rarely felt so real.

*Read about the film's Sundance Award.

Reviewed on: 11 Feb 2009
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An Education packshot
A 16-year-old - and her family - are swept off their feet by a debonair older man.
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Director: Lone Scherfig

Writer: Nick Hornby, based on a memoir by Lynn Barber

Starring: Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Cara Seymour, Emma Thompson, Sally Hawkins, Rosamund Pike, Dominic Cooper, Olivia Williams, Matthew Beard

Year: 2009

Runtime: 95 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: UK


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