Movie News & Reviews

'An Education': hard lessons for a too-smart schoolgirl

It's raining. She's getting drenched while waiting for the bus.

And then he shows up, charming, inviting, chivalrous even. He's driving a Bristol, and it's warm and dry.

Wasn't there a Sting song about this?

An Education is Lone Scherfig's faintly creepy but richly rewarding coming-of-age drama based on the Lynn Barber memoir, scripted by Nick Hornby. An uneasy remembrance of an inappropriate relationship, it's a beautifully written, acted and felt drama about rejecting the handed-down values of parents and society and learning the hard way by making one's own mistakes.

It's also a coming-out party for young Carey Mulligan, who gives a dazzling, wise and witty performance. Her Jenny is 16, smart, outspoken and Oxford-bound, or so her dad (Alfred Molina) insists. She is old for her years, too literate, too outspoken, listening to French chanteuses on the hi-fi and dropping French phrases in a tres chic way. The boys she meets in school are just that: boys. She can't wait to get past Latin and junior orchestra, to get on with her life.

"I'm going to smoke, wear black and listen to Jacques Brel!" she declares.

David (Peter Sarsgaard at his most beguiling) isn't a boy. He has dash, a sharp car and charm. He seems wealthy, worldly and unthreatening. So what if he's 30 or so? He offers her a lift by suggesting she put her cello in his car, out of the rain, so that she "won't take rides from strange men," and before you know it, he's smooth-talking her cheap, homebody parents, whisking her off to chamber music concerts, nightclubs, dog tracks and auctions, all with his equally sophisticated friends (Rosamund Pike and Dominic Cooper).

The pre-Polanski 1961 setting of this "romance" doesn't assuage our unease. David is mysterious, secretive even. Jenny might see warning signs, but she doesn't know what to make of them. Her parents and peers are utterly buffaloed. Only her teacher (Olivia Williams) has words of caution, backed up by the no-nonsense headmistress at school (Emma Thompson, scary).

But when you're a brilliant girl without the life experience to go with the intelligence, you don't want to see that your new friends aren't as smart and well-rounded as you. Jenny does the math, looks at the staid post-war British life ahead of her (embodied by her favorite teacher) and wonders, like an entire generation of '60s kids, "Is that it?"

Scherfig, the Dane who directed Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, and screenwriter Hornby (High Fidelity) keep this genteel, never letting An Education slip into the sordid. This is more Educating Rita than Exotica.

And Mulligan, a fresh-faced Katie Holmes look-alike, never once lets us see Jenny as a victim. She will learn, even if her parents never do, the lessons that this taste of the fast life teach. And someday, she'll look back and write a clear-eyed yet wistful memoir about it all.

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