‘An Education’ – Movie Review

O what a joy – unfortunately, a rare one – is a fine script! They don’t come much finer than Nick Hornby’s in An Education: well plotted, tight, sparkling with wit and a literary intelligence that informs every line without drawing attention to itself. Actors must love encountering writing like this – especially quality performers, who seize on quality material as an opportunity to shine. And shine the performers do in this movie – all of them!

Carey Mulligan plays the lead character, Jenny, a bright 17 year old suburban girl in early 60s England (brilliantly recreated in the movie, I am assured, by one who was there at that time) who aspires to an urbane world of art and sophistication. The road to that life begins at Oxford, she assumes, but in the meantime she is preparing herself by playing the cello, throwing around French phrases at every opportunity…and studying diligently under the watchful eye of her father (Alfred Molina). Charmed into a dizzy romance by a much older man of abundant but ill-begotten means, David (Peter Sarsgaard), she finds herself on a shortcut to her promised land of jazz clubs, classical concerts, fine wining and dining, Sobrane cigarettes, plush cars and trysts in Paris.

In a memorable exchange with her headmistress (Emma Thompson), Jenny explodes with a cry from the heart of existentialism that every youthful artistic soul will identify with: why bother with school, with uni, with doing all the stuff you’re supposeta when it leads inevitably to a boring job and a predictable life of dulling routine? Why not live fast and live NOW and have it all while you can?

Indeed, it’s such an impassioned speech that for all its naivete and superficiality, you’re seduced into agreeing with her with a fist-pumping YES. But the freedom to live as you want, when you want, has a price…as Jenny learns painfully. Bummer.

This isn’t the best film of 2009, but it’s damn near perfect for what it is – a coming-of-age story superbly executed on every level. I found it compelling from the first frame to the last. I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying it. It’s an auspicious feature movie debut from director Lone Scherfig. Big credit to her and all else involved.

PS: Before I leave off this review I have to point out a delicious irony. Rosamund Pike plays Helen, a dippy bimbo who gets by on her glamorous looks and, no doubt, sexual prowess. She’s a terrific comedic foil to lead character Jenny, who strays into pretentiousness in her efforts to appear worldly and sophisticated, dropping French phrases gratuitously etc. “Why do you speak French if you’re not in France?” asks Helen ingenuously, unblinking. When Jenny tells her she plans to “read English” at Oxford, Helen seeks clarification: “You mean reading English books?” Pike does dumb so well in this, that it came as an eyebrow-raising surprise to discover during my pre-review research that, like her opposite number in the movie, Jenny, she is a skilled cellist, speaks fluent French and…you guessed it – read English at Oxford!

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