Saturday, November 28, 2009

"An Education"

Because it's late, I don't want to say too much about An Education, except that I enjoyed it and particularly admired Nick Hornby's sharp, witty writing and the acting of Alfred Molina, always great, and Carey Mulligan, the ingenue everyone's buzzing about. I'm not sure she'll get an Oscar nomination, but I wouldn't count her out. Her performance is supremely controlled without feeling artificial; as my mother noted, she does a lot of acting with her face, and that's something that's often said of the very best actors. Watching her develop her 16-year-old character, Jenny, was a pleasure from start to finish. (Mulligan, as it happens, is 24, but she certainly looks like a teenager in the movie.)

Peter Sarsgaard's role -- he plays David, Jenny's love interest, who's roughly double her age -- seems a bit slight until you realize the film isn't about him at all. Instead, it's about how Jenny reacts to his advances and deceptions, and to all the people in her life who think they know what's best for her. Several scenes touched me, including one between Mulligan and Emma Thompson (as the headmistress of Jenny's school) in which Mulligan equaled her elder's confidence and screen presence. Olivia Williams, perhaps best known for her work in Rushmore, has a nice small turn as one of Jenny's teachers, and they skillfully share two very different scenes. The film's low-key approach differs greatly from that of Notes on a Scandal (2006), which presented similar subject matter as a juicy melodrama rather than a poignant coming-of-age story.

The portion of Jenny's life that An Education chronicles is at once major and minor, highly influential and forgettable; such paradoxes make more sense, I suspect, as people age and gain perspective. (At one point, when her teacher asks her whether she feels old and wise in the wake of her escapades with David, Jenny replies that she feels old but not wise. A response only a wise person can give, no?) Suffice it to say that Lone Scherfig's film gives Mulligan ample room to shine, and she does, brightly. Her Jenny radiates intelligence, and her well-hidden toughness is thrilling to see when it finally emerges. As Louis Menand once observed, some romances invite you to fall in love with only one member of a couple. In this case, it's Jenny who wins our hearts.

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