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An Education

(No longer in theaters)
  • Rating: PG-13 — for mature thematic material involving sexual content, and for smoking
  • Director: Lone Scherfig   Cast: Emma Thompson, Rosamund Pike, Dominic Cooper, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina
  • Running Time: 99 minutes
  • Reader Rating: Write a Review

Genre

Drama

Producer

Finola Dwyer

Distributor

Sony Classics

Release Date

Oct 9, 2009

Release Notes

NY/LA

Official Website

Review

If there’s one thing that can pack an art-house cinema, it’s the prospect of watching a pretty English teenager deflowered by a predatory older man, the whole dramatic striptease framed as an “educational experience.” Encourage the press to proclaim the leading actress the new Audrey Hepburn and the come-on is, as the Brits like to say, “Brilliant!” An Education introduces Carey Mulligan as Jenny, a middle-class 16-year-old who dreams of “reading English” at Oxford. It’s 1961, and Jenny is encouraged to the point of fanaticism by her father (Alfred Molina), who regards his only child as the family’s sole hope of climbing a rung on the social ladder. Smoking Gauloises and dropping the odd French phrase, the comely teen is primed to climb. Enter thirtyish Jewish fancy-pants David (Peter Sarsgaard), who gives her a lift in a downpour and is soon gushing, “There’s so much I want you to see!” (Fill in your own rejoinder.) Warned by her prim English teacher (Olivia Williams) of the perils of an alliance with an older man, Jenny increasingly leans toward worldly experience over musty books. It’s touching when she draws the exact wrong lessons from her reading: Yes, the existentialists believe character is defined through action, but trading school for travel and leisure is not what Camus had in mind.

As scripted by Nick Hornby from a memoir by Lynn Barber, the melodrama is not as crude as it first appears. Although David is a transparent liar, there are hints that on some level he actually believes his own effusions, that he wants more than to get into a virgin’s knickers. Jenny’s prospects in that time and place are constricted, and David might offer a kind of emancipation. Meanwhile, the advocates for school—among them Emma Thompson’s snobbish headmistress—inspire little but cynicism.

For all its original touches, though, An Education follows a conventional trajectory. We watch Jenny ignore obvious clues and make dumb mistakes and wait for her eyes to be opened. Lone Scherfig’s direction is glum. We’re so clued in to what’s really going on that we never share Jenny’s authentic excitement at being introduced to art, music, and exotic locales. The story’s most obvious lesson is: Beware of Jews bearing flowers, especially when they look like John Malkovich in Dangerous Liaisons. (Sarsgaard did a wicked Malkovich parody as the actor’s son in The Man in the Iron Mask, but it’s hard to shake off their similar calculating affect.)

How is our alleged Audrey Hepburn? Not very Hepburnesque (the essence of which is buoyancy, enchantment), but charmingly open all the same. At moments, she’s little-girlish: When she smiles, her whole face smiles with her. Other times, she strikes believably grown-up poses—enough to convince you Jenny is not just a poseur, that she’s ready to move on. She gives An Education it’s only real suspense: Will someone like Jenny—who’s right on the border between a naïf and a sophisticate, between girlhood and womanhood—have the self-possession to recover from being “ruined”?

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