November 5, 2009

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An Education (PG-13)
A 16-year-old girl begins an affair with a much older man in Mad-Men-era London in An Education, a smart coming-of-age story written by Nick Hornby.

This is a London after the war but before the social changes of the 1960s, when women could excel but a decent marriage was still a perfectly acceptable alternative.

Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is pushed by her father (Alfred Molina) to get an education, specifically an Oxford education. He pushes her to take up cello to serve as her “interest or hobby” but doesn’t want it to get in the way of her Latin or the other studying that will win her a spot at the university. Jenny is smart and driven herself — but not so much that she doesn’t want to know what else is happening in the world. When she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), she relishes the chance to do something that isn’t aimed solely at looking good to an admissions committee. Where her father yells at Jenny to turn off her record player, David takes her to concerts. While her family seldom goes anywhere, David wants to take her to nightclubs and horse races and even Paris. He is everything glamorous, decadent and enjoyable. And all he seems to want in return is Jenny’s presence (when she tells him that she doesn’t want to have sex until she turns 17, he is basically fine with it, patiently waiting until her birthday).

Of course, it doesn’t take an Oxford grad to figure out that a man (who is at best in his 30s) who squires around a 16-year-old school girl probably isn’t going to be perfect. Jenny’s teachers — particularly Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams), who sees great promise in Jenny — fear that David and his distractions could ruin her life. But Jenny’s parents are too blinded by David’s slick stories and appearance of wealth and culture to give him a critical look. In the end it’s Jenny who has to learn the price of David’s life and decide if it’s one she’s willing to pay.

Jenny isn’t a pushover, isn’t a dummy. She is uneasy about the speed with which her father decides that a life with David is just as good as an Oxford education, just as she is uneasy with the idea that the road map of studying followed by a life in academia is the best option. The life of Miss Stubbs seems empty to Jenny, as does her mother’s life — and these seem to be her choices. That David might offer a third, brighter future is just too tantalizing to pass up.

These aren’t the choices now and a man the age of David taking a 16-year-old away for a long weekend would be arrested. But there’s still plenty that’s familiar in Jenny’s longing for something that isn’t this. Carey Mulligan does a standout job of giving us a believable 16-year-old — someone who is smart but occasionally reckless and who is strong but not always strong enough to stand up to her own desires. Likewise, Sarsgaard is able to make his creepy, needy Dave just suave enough that you could understand why a not-entirely-savvy young girl would be interested in him.

And, like the aforementioned Mad Men, it’s an interesting look at the world right before it changed, right before it became the freer, messier thing it is now. B+

Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving sexual content and for smoking. Directed by Lone Scherfig and written by Nick Hornby from a memoir by Lynn Barber, An Education is distributed in limited release by Sony Pictures Classics.