Movie Review: An Education (2009)

Peter Sarsgaard and Carey Mulligan in An Education

Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Director Lone Scherfig’s An Education can have a hypnotic quality to it depending on how you read it. A young 16-year-old in 1961 Twickenham, England is seduced by an older man and whisked away into a life she had only dreamed of. A life free of her studies and filled with classical music, art auctions and trips to Paris. Adapted from the memoir of British journalist Lynn Barber, the story of Jenny played with complete and utter competence by Carey Mulligan is as entertaining as it is emotional. If you find yourself caught up in the whimsy of the first two acts and feel suddenly shuddered by the third, then the movie has done its job by putting you squarely in Jenny’s shoes as you both get a harsh dose of reality.

Jenny’s desire is to have fun. She’s worked hard at her studies with the goal of fulfilling her father’s dream and getting into Oxford to read English. Her “hobby” is the cello and she is a member of the youth orchestra to show she is a “joiner-inner”. Her father has plotted her life out for her, but the overall lack of fun in Jenny’s life allows for the smooth-talking David (Peter Sarsgaard) to easily sweep her off her feet.

As Jenny, Mulligan is an absolute star. Jenny is a smart and witty young girl and none of that is lost in Mulligan’s performance in a film that would have folded without the proper lead. Playing her counterpart, Sarsgaard is equally impressive if not occasionally slimy. His character is suave and cool under pressure, but Sarsgaard brings a “something-beneath-the-facade” approach to the role that keeps audience members wary, all while entranced by his sophisticated charm.

Kudos for the cast don’t stop with the two leads as just about everyone involved brings plenty to the proceedings. Playing David’s high society friends are Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike. Cooper is dashing and eternally interesting, playing a character I wanted to learn more about and would love to see a spin-off tale detailing his and David’s exploits. The lady on his arm played by Pike is the film’s much needed dolt. She’s high on fashion and is up-to-date with the latest magazines, but when the group goes to a classical music concert she’s left staring off into space without a clue as to what is to be appreciated.

In only a pair of scenes we have Emma Thompson playing Jenny’s school’s headmistress. Thompson’s addition to the film isn’t as much a showcase for her talents as much as it proves Mulligan is a star by offering a scene in which the two go toe-to-toe and Mulligan bends not at all.

Finally we have Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour playing Jenny’s father and mother. Molina steals every scene he is in whether he is offering his own for of life education to Jenny or playing the forgiving father. He nails this performance as I have never seen him before. Molina is yet to earn an Oscar nomination, but as of right now he is, at the very least, a lock for a supporting actor nomination.

Speaking of Oscars, Mulligan is a lock for a Best Actress nomination if not the current front-runner to take home the award. An Education is certain to enjoy additional nominations such as adapted screenplay and perhaps even a nod for Sarsgaard depending on which category Sony Classics pushes him.

A mix of fantastic music, witty dialogue, gorgeous on-location camerawork and performances to remember, An Education is an excellent film I have already made a point of seeing twice and would instantly see again. It’s one of the best films of 2009 to be sure and I look forward to championing it this coming Oscar season.

GRADE: A-

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