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An Education

Peter Sarsgaard and Carey Mulligan in An Education.

About a Girl

An Education is about a spiritual conflict, something that only becomes obvious late in the film. Until then, it seems more concerned with the titillating and satirical aspects of its 16-year-old high school student heroine’s slow advance into an affair with a man at least twice her age.

Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a senior at a private girls school. It’s 1961, in a London that’s on the cusp between the post-war, Tory-dominated era of rationed goods and expectations and the break-out of consumerist personal expression in the swinging London of the Beatles and Carnaby Street. She’s a gifted and self-confident girl and an accomplished student who’s on a track pointed toward Oxford.

Director Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners) immediately establishes the ambiance of a still dreary, subtly regimented, lower-middle-class suburban-London world in the early 1960s. There are dun-toned streetscapes of row houses in pale light under leaden skies. Jenny’s home life is a somewhat comically stylized exemplification of this restrictive social environment. Her father (Alfred Molina) frets about the costs entailed in securing his daughter a place in Oxford’s hallowed precincts, and tries to make cost-benefit calculations for the academic and extracurricular refinements suggested by Jenny and her soft-spoken mother (Rosamund Pike).

Into this circumscribed life a glamorous intruder comes. David Goldman (Peter Sarsgaard) is a thirty-something, slightly unctuous, but sincerity projecting charmer who pulls up in a wine-colored Bristol touring car one day and slyly offers to rescue Jenny’s cello as she walks home from a school concert in a drenching rain.

Soon enough, despite his disconcertingly exotic Jewishness, David has inveigled his way around her parents on the decidedly dubious pretense of an avuncular, or fraternal, concern. Jenny is whisked off to concerts in London’s center, to fancy nightclubs, and, with surprising ease, a weekend in Oxford’s sacred groves. This last is permitted on the prevaricated pretext that David will arrange an introduction for Jenny with famed author C.S. Lewis. (Reminded that David is no writer himself, Jenny’s very impressed and determinedly sensible father responds that “becoming one’s not the same as knowing one.”)

It’s on this Oxford jaunt that Jenny first allows David a limited erotic privilege, and subsequently learns how he came by that Bristol and all the expensive gifts he’s bestowed on her. David and his posh partner Danny (Dominic Cooper, in an expertly restrained performance) are accomplished, high-stakes scam artists with a range of corrupt enterprises. And yet, this very young aspiring sophisticate registers no disapproval, and goes off to Paris with David, where she consummates the affair on her 17th birthday. Dominic will later have cause to remind her of this failure to protest.

An Education was adapted by novelist Nick Hornby (About a Boy, High Fidelity) from a brief memoir by the reputedly tart-tongued British journalist Lynn Barber, and it’s told from Jenny’s point of view; although there is no obtrusive voice-over narrative until near the end, she’s in virtually every scene. Her developing experience is what we too experience. The film is frank about David’s smoothly excused but crude exploitation of the unwary and the vulnerable, but Jenny is too beguiled by the sudden, glorious expansion of her material possibilities to maintain her bearings. And her reorientation is tacitly encouraged by her starstruck parents.

What lends these related events the most plausibility is Sarsgaard’s impressively accomplished, emotionally complex performance. Even after David is undeniably established as a bounder, the actor manages to create a sense of this character’s sincere commitment to his own dreams, his semi-deluded narcissism.

Mulligan is a young actress of obvious resources and skills, and while every now and then she seems a trifle old for the part, she gives Jenny an intelligence and verve for which the movie doesn’t always provide a basis. Hornby’s script is at first amusingly and naughtily entertaining, but An Education doesn’t negotiate the transition to serious, soul-searching drama in its last third. As a bildungsroman it seems a little thin and rushed.

The Danish-born Scherfig exhibits a feel for the material and the period, including its class-structured outlooks and tensions, but she may have been let down by the script too.

An Education lacks a tonal and narrative cohesion, but it’s no clumsy failure. And Sarsgaard’s performance is emotionally layered, insightful, and quietly compelling.

Watch the trailer for An Education

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