Film Review: Character study marks good 'Education'

Set in 1961, the troubling courtship of bright but naive Jenny (newcomer Carey Mulligan) and the older David (Peter Sarsgaard) evokes an era of skinny ties and superior attitudes.Kerry BrownSony Pictures Classics

Set in 1961, the troubling courtship of bright but naive Jenny (newcomer Carey Mulligan) and the older David (Peter Sarsgaard) evokes an era of skinny ties and superior attitudes.Kerry BrownSony Pictures Classics

This is stay-in-school week at the movies: "The Blind Side," "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" and "An Education" all counsel young people to hit the books, not the streets or the sheets.

In the first two movies, school offers the hope of not just salvation but survival. The stakes aren't as high in "An Education," but this impeccably mounted and acted BBC Films production, set in 1961 London, is more successful at achieving its less-ambitious aim: It's the type of sturdy character study and "movie of quality" that habituées of Malco's Ridgeway Four expect but too infrequently experience.

Set in 1961, the troubling courtship of bright but naive Jenny (newcomer Carey Mulligan) and the older David (Peter Sarsgaard) evokes an era of skinny ties and superior attitudes.Kerry BrownSony Pictures Classics

Set in 1961, the troubling courtship of bright but naive Jenny (newcomer Carey Mulligan) and the older David (Peter Sarsgaard) evokes an era of skinny ties and superior attitudes.Kerry BrownSony Pictures Classics

Adapted by popular British novelist Nick Hornby ("High Fidelity") from Lynn Barber's coming-of-age memoir, the movie chronicles the initially flattering and exciting but inevitably troubling courtship/seduction of Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a pretty and extremely bright but naive 16-year-old virgin, by David (Peter Sarsgaard), a seemingly sophisticated charmer almost twice her age. "I'm a music lover and I'm worried about your cello," is David's smart, deceptively harmless come-on to Jenny, when he pulls up to a bus stop where the girl is standing with her instrument in the rain. Hearing of Jenny's plans to attend Oxford, David says: "I studied at what I believe they call the university of life. I didn't get a very good degree there."

Jenny, as they no doubt did not say in 1961 London, is cruisin' for a bruisin'. The girl, who peppers her speech with French phrases, is eager to escape her provincial parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) and middle-class Twickenham neighborhood for the intellectual life of Oxford, where she plans to read existential novels and watch foreign films. David seems to offer an irresistible shortcut to the world of jazz clubs and art appreciation, although Sarsgaard's trademark slit-lidded eyes and Jenny's English literature assignment ("Jane Eyre") foreshadow trouble.

Somewhat improbably, Jenny's parents also are pushovers for David's disarming banter and maroon sports car. Hornby's occasionally overwritten script addresses the adults' complicity when Jenny chastises her parents with a speech that doesn't tell the audience anything it doesn't already know.

Directed by Lone Scherfig (a Danish filmmaker working in English for the first time), the movie offers many of the visual and behavioral delights of AMC's "Mad Men," which is set in the same pre-Beatles milieu of skinny neckties and superior attitudes. Sarsgaard and especially Mulligan (a relative newcomer to feature films) are superb, as are Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike as David's somewhat reluctant co-conspirators. The movie's message proves surprisingly conventional, but its delivery is entirely pleasurable.

-- John Beifuss, 529-2394

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