Monday, March 29, 2010

To be released Tuesday on DVD: "An Education"

An EducationGrade: A

Disarming and unexpectedly poignant, An Education contrasts the knowledge learned in school with that learned from life.

The pupil in question is Jenny, a 16-year-old honors student circa 1961 at a girls' prep school in Twickenham, a middle-class London suburb, who is destined for Oxford.

One rainy afternoon, a stranger named David offers to give her a ride home in his shiny sports car. After Jenny is introduced to material pleasures, Oxford looks less like a destination than a dead end.

As played by the criminally adorable Carey Mulligan - a winsome actress with Audrey Hepburn eyes, Jean Simmonsdimples, an Ellen Page mouth, and her own unforced mirth - Jenny is a book-smart girl hungering for life lessons. David Goldman (Peter Sarsgaard as the wolf in bespoke sheep's clothing) is only too happy to instruct.

The film, based on a memoir by Lynn Barber, is atmospherically directed by Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig(Italian for Beginners). While Mulligan is a revelation, every performance is a gem.

Jenny is a girl studying the very limited menu of choices for women, unable to order a selection to her taste. The options are:
a) spineless and dependent men, like Jenny's mum (Cara Seymour), or
b) sexless and independent, like Jenny's English teacher, Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams).

Clearly Jenny, who has spine and smarts and sex appeal, will have to concoct her own dish. Definitely it will be in the French mode, for Jenny is inclined to smoke Gauloises, listen to the plaintive recordings of chanteuse Juliette Greco, read Albert Camus, and behave like a precocious malcontent out of a Francoise Sagan novel, flirting with a man twice her age.

When said man ingratiates himself with her parents, Jenny's overbearing dad (Alfred Molina) - who had envisioned Oxford as a hunting ground where his middle-class daughter might snare an upper-class husband - imagines marrying her off to the soft-spoken sophisticate of mysterious vocation.

Once in David's orbit, Jenny is starstruck by his friends, Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike). In their company, dreary London sparkles. Helen, a lemon tart of a lovely, teaches Jenny how to dress and wear her hair. She also teaches the curious girl some basic sex ed, not in the curriculum at prep schools in 1961.

An Education is a timeless story about life choices. Should Jenny study hard and defer gratification to get into university, or play hard and have fun now? Should she date the fumbling young wit intimidated by her or the smooth-talking sophisticate who might initiate her in sexual pleasure?

With her flawless corps of actors (including Emma Thompson, as an anti-Semitic headmistress), Scherfig pungently evokes Jenny's dilemma.

Yes, there is sex, which occurs offscreen and about which the pragmatic Jenny observes, "All that poetry, and all those songs, about something that lasts no time at all?"

In the end, Jenny's different courses of study do converge to prepare her for both university and life. The unapologetically entertaining An Education suggests that bad decisions can lead to good.

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