Art House Salad
By R. Kurt Osenlund, The Good Life film critic
Dir. Lone Scherfig
Sony Pictures Classics
95 min. PG-13
Can an extraordinary performance lift a slightly-too-ordinary movie to the height of greatness? In the case of breakout star Carey Mulligan in director Lone Scherfig's coming-of-age tale, “An Education,” the answer is...almost. Mulligan, 24, whose previous film credits include 2005's “Pride & Prejudice” and not much else, is luminous and unforgettable, and she'll almost certainly find herself in the company of such young and relatively inexperienced actresses as Jennifer Hudson, Amy Adams and Catalina Sandino Moreno, whose similarly revelatory work landed them in Oscar's good graces. And this film, set in 1960s London and based on the autobiographical memoir by British journalist Lynn Barber, is eloquent, attractive and oh-so-classy. But there is a vexing, underlying familiarity to it that even Mulligan's magnetism can't hide, and that's both a surprise and a disappointment given the resoundingly positive post-Sundance reviews. “An Education” is often a joy to watch, but it's not quite as special as the early buzz suggests.
Mulligan plays Jenny, a super-achieving, virginal 16-year-old whose entire life has been steering her down one predetermined path: she will study her butt off, get into Oxford, study her butt off some more, and then...what? Jenny's father (Alfred Molina, also Oscar-worthy) is loving, but overprotective and obsessed with status and success. Opting not to bank on the archaic notion that Jenny will simply marry into wealth and be provided for, he's always told his daughter that she must follow aforementioned path to make it in the world. Jenny's mother (a warmly charming Cara Seymour) dutifully stands by her husband's plans with very few objections. The teachers at Jenny's all-girls high school perpetually drive the same way of thinking into her head: “get to university, get to university.” But no one has ever really explained to Jenny what enjoyable benefits will be waiting at the end of the path, and keeping her nose forever buried in books has left her culturally squelched. As she confides to her friends, what she really wants to do is listen to French music, travel to beautiful places, smoke, dance and converse with interesting people. She gets all that and more when she meets David (the invaluable Peter Sarsgaard), a dashing, 35-year-old bon vivant who seduces not only Jenny, but her parents as well. Wining and dining her in Paris and beyond, David gives Jenny the worldly escapades she's been craving, but, of course, there's more to this mystery man than meets the starry eye.
The script by novelist-turned-screenwriter Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity,” “About A Boy”) has a wonderful ear for sharp, witty and refined dialogue, never better exemplified than in a few deliciously dramatic exchanges between Jenny and her stern headmistress (the great Emma Thompson), who spar over the value of the education system after word of Jenny's extracurricular activities begins to circulate. But the developments of the plot are too schematic for such a seemingly high-caliber project, to the extent that, eventually, I knew it was high time for things to reach their inevitable, all-is-lost climactic peak, and such a moment arrived within seconds. Though dressed up beautifully (Odile Dicks-Mireaux's costume design, Paul Englishby's music, and John de Borman's cinematography – especially in Paris – are all exquisite), the path of the film is one we've all traveled before, and its tidy conclusion is très typical.
And still, it is a film I really enjoyed. Mulligan, who has rightfully earned a slew of Audrey Hepburn comparisons, is so splendid as Jenny, her presence alone is worth the price of multiple admissions. It's not often you see a breakthrough performance in which the actor is so utterly comfortable and confident on camera. And as Jenny learns from her adventures, the performance evolves as well. Mulligan seems to be growing with her character, and the best thing about this movie is that it invites us to watch her bloom. Scherfig also succeeds in conveying the seductiveness of David, his posh friends (Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike) and their lavish lifestyle, which is as beguiling to the audience as it is to Jenny.
Fulfilling the film's theme of “action is character,” Jenny's experiences make her a richer, better person. The experience of “An Education” isn't that powerful, but, more often than not, it comes close.
4 stars (out of 5)
"An Education" opens Nov. 23 at the Ritz Five in Philadelphia.