A powerful "Education"

Oct. 31, 2009, midnight | By Eli Okun | 10 years, 12 months ago

Scherfig's period piece is well-done but can't achieve best in class

Outside, the leaves are turning golden and floating to the ground, which means only one thing inside the movie theaters: It's Oscar time. The crop of films released at the end of the year – just in time for Academy Award consideration – has commenced, and among the most buzzed-about is Lone Scherfig's "An Education," which hit nationwide release last Friday.

The movie's student is Jenny (Carey Mulligan, in her debut lead), a precocious 16-year-old in 1960s England who lives with her quiet mother (Cara Seymour) and an overbearing father (Alfred Molina) who has a single focus: getting Jenny to Oxford. And although Jenny excels in school, she imagines life beyond it. She listens to French artists while she should be reviewing for Latin tests, and she dreams that going to Oxford University will emancipate her from the confining ordinariness of her world. It comes as no surprise, then, that David (Peter Sarsgaard), a charming 30-something whose suave car interior rescues Jenny and her cello from a particularly ominous downpour, exerts such a strong pull on her when he enters the film. Carefully coiffed hairstyles replace Jenny's plain brown locks, and artificial 'culture' – think opulent apartments and fancy dinners – replaces Jenny's sweet humanity. Their bond blossoms into romance, but the demands of their relationship soon test Jenny and her adventurous spirit.

Especially vibrant through this story arc is Mulligan, who glows in the breakout role; her face is the understated mirror of an extensive emotional range. And although heavy make-up assists Jenny's transformation from studious schoolgirl to refined socialite, Mulligan manages the journey flawlessly – her acting skills shine through every scene. Her tremulous bravery during an uncomfortable, semi-sexual moment with David in a hotel room is particularly impressive. She's a refined actress, one who can maintain her elegance even at the darkest of moments. And her combination of bubbly innocence and courage creates one of the most endearing performances of the year.

American actor Sarsgaard – who perfects a British accent here – taints his character's smile with just enough oiliness to propel the script along; the scenes in which David dupes Jenny's parents into allowing her out with him are among the funniest of the movie. And though Cooper and Pike don't add much, Olivia Williams is shockingly good, powering through a small but pivotal role as Jenny's closest schoolteacher.

Among other things, writer Nick Hornby injects the script with enough subtle clues of each character's nature to keep the audience engaged. Becoming part of a growing list of acclaimed literary authors-turned-screenwriters, Hornby has crafted a clever script, speckled with flashes of quiet humor that spice up a rather conventional coming-of-age tale. His dialogue is witty and real. But he tends to the overly theatrical, in some of his supporting characters and in his editorial decisions – did Jenny really just mime a beating heart? Must the music crescendo so dramatically? And why does the movie peter out with a weak voiceover finale?

Luckily for audiences, Lone Scherfig helms the movie; she and Mulligan counterbalance Hornby with a distinct feel for serenity, as when the two lovers lie opposite one another in the Paris grass (the image splashed across the movie's posters). For the most part, Scherfig allows the actors to breathe life into Hornby's script, a method that's usually successful.

Unfortunately, the overdone coming-of-age trajectory grounds "An Education" in merely "very good" territory. Everything flows smoothly, and performances keep the movie fresh, but the plot is a bit too unoriginal, the revelations a bit too expected, to spark the movie into something great.

The film, ultimately, serves as a vehicle to showcase Mulligan, and she alone can't pull together an outstanding movie. "An Education" excels, but it simply doesn't earn an A+.

"An Education" (95 minutes) is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving sexual content, and for smoking. Now playing in limited release.

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