October 22, 2009

MOVIES: An Education (Lone Scherfig, 2009)

Yes, everything you've heard about Carey Mulligan's star-making performance is true. She's spectacular here, and in a role that demands a wide emotional range, she never makes a false step.

Mulligan stars as Jenny, who is 16 as the movie opens. It's the early 1960s in London, and Jenny is desperate for her childhood to end and for her real life to begin. So when she meets the charming David (Peter Sarsgaard), she leaps at the romance despite their age difference. She likes David, but as much as anything, Jenny is in love with what David represents -- sophistication, travel, wealth, a casually weary "been there, done that" attitude about life. When she learns that David earns his living in ways that are, at best, unethical, she brushes that aside as the cost of entering his exciting adult world.

Similarly, David isn't so much in love with Jenny herself as with her innocence and eagerness. Sarsgaard plays the role with a hint of sadness throughout; he's aware from the very beginning that this relationship isn't going to last for long (for reasons that go well beyond the obvious), and that Jenny will ultimately have her heart broken.

The supporting cast is very strong. Alfred Molina shines as Jenny's father, who is just as taken in by David's manipulative charm as Jenny is. Rosamund Pike is quite funny as Helen, the girlfriend of David's best friend; Helen may not be the most worldly of women, but she does what she can to protect Jenny from David's worst excesses. Olivia Williams has been made up and costumed to be unrecognizably dowdy as Jenny's favorite teacher, and Emma Thompson has a spectacular cameo as her headmistress.

But it's Mulligan's picture. She's on screen in almost every scene, and captures every nuance of Jenny's emotions, from her initial boredom to the thrill of first love, from the fear and excitement of her first sexual experience to the overwhelming pain when the relationship ends. She will certainly be one of the front-runners for all of the major awards this year. (It was announced today that Sarsgaard will be campaigned in the Supporting Actor category, which is nonsense -- his is clearly a lead role -- and which will likely hurt Molina's chances of being nominated in that category.)

Nick Hornby's screenplay, based on a memoir by Lynn Barber, is sharp and funny, and allows all of the characters to be fully human; there are no perfect saints or total villains on hand. The period music is well chosen and helps to keep the audience firmly located in time; Floyd Cramer's "On the Rebound" was a particularly inspired choice for the opening credits, and it sets the tone perfectly for the opening scenes.

First-rate work from everyone involved; recommended wholeheartedly.

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