Life lessons come with a price in ‘An Education’
The animated opening credits of “An Education’’ promise untold delights, to us and to the movie’s heroine. Martinis and phonographs, jazz, and Paris - these are the tokens of adult bliss if you’re a smart, bored 16-year-old girl in 1961 London. They come with a price, of course, since what coming-of-age movie lets its main character off scot-free? That Lone Scherfig’s wise and engaging drama runs so smoothly on its well-established rails is its pleasure and its limitation.
There’s the added bonus of finding a brand new talent under our collective nose. The British actress Carey Mulligan plays all sides of schoolgirl Jenny in the same quicksilver breath: the clever A-student, the arch young cynic, the Left Bank existentialist wannabe, the naive girl, the lover, the fool. Comparisons have been made to Audrey Hepburn and when Jenny piles her hair up in one scene for a walk down a Paris sidewalk, you may be dazzled into agreement. Mulligan has tarter charms, though - she’s not chic but watchful and sly. A star may or may not be born in “An Education,’’ but an actress most surely is.
When the movie begins, all is going according to plan: Jenny is acing her studies and extracurriculars and seems unstoppably Oxford bound. After that the vision of her parents and schoolteachers turns cloudy. Presumably Jenny will marry a social class or two above her, which is what matters. For herself, she sneaks smokes, listens to Juliette Greco albums, and yearns desperately to be French. The film beautifully captures that moment just before the Beatles arrived and changed everything, when post-war England was a dead end and to be young was to dream of escape.
Then Jenny meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), who is not part of the plan: 30-ish, Jewish, charmish. He has a sports car and smart suits, and what he does for a living is interestingly vague. He knows colored people; he can talk jazz and classical; he has been to Paris. The screenwriter is author Nick Hornby, adapting a memoir by Lynn Barber, and he and director Scherfig and actress Mulligan all understand what Jane Austen understood: Watching an intelligent woman swoon can be great, moving entertainment.
The early heart of the movie is in the scenes in which Jenny skips out on the town with David and his business partner Danny (Dominic Cooper). There’s a nightclub scene that features the best shot in the whole movie: a close-up of Mulligan’s dazed, widening smile. Danny has a stylish blond girlfriend, Helen (Rosamund Pike) who appears to be everything Jenny wishes for, but is in fact just an accessory. “An Education’’ is very smart about the difference between these two - how Helen is part of the past while Jenny, without knowing it, is a woman of the future - and Pike gives a re markable performance, chic and sad all at once.
The film’s also very smart about Jenny’s parents, Jack (Alfred Molina) and Majorie (Cara Seymour), middle-class strivers seduced by David’s hints of upper-class connections. David talks them into allowing Jenny to join him on a weekend in Oxford - he claims to be close to C.S. Lewis himself - and Scherfig allows us to see their hypocrisy both through Jenny’s eyes and our own, trained as we now are not to let our daughters go off with 30-something men, no matter who they say they know.
Of course the girl is headed for a fall - of course she is. Life sometimes works the other way, but movies don’t. “An Education’’ takes its title seriously enough that you know what’s going to happen and more or less when. The final half hour feels especially formulaic, as if the director has glanced at her watch and realized she needs to wrap things up. Jenny deserves better than the cliches that slowly overtake the script.
You stay involved through the sharpness of the performances, major and minor. Molina is very affecting as his character’s paternal authority slowly erodes and Sarsgaard patiently reveals a creepier, more troubled David, who in many ways is much younger than his teenage girl-friend. (When he tries out some romantic baby talk, Jenny’s as appalled as we are.)
“An Education’’ lives through its women, though: Pike’s sweetly dim Helen, Seymour’s trapped but caring Majorie, Olivia Williams as a teacher whose dowdiness is only skin-deep, Emma Thompson in a brief turn as a headmistress with spine and head of iron, Sally Hawkins in a briefer turn as a young mother. To Jenny they’re all the possible Jennys she might turn out to be if she doesn’t forge her own path.
Best of all, “An Education’’ isn’t alarmist. It knows other people can’t seduce us if we don’t seduce ourselves first and that Jenny is level-headed enough to handle it and learn. The title refers to at least three meanings of “class’’ - the school courses she takes, the social classes she intends to cross, and the personal class, the inner elegance, Jenny seeks in Helen or Paris but which already resides in herself. She is Audrey Hepburn. She just doesn’t know it yet.