Saturday, November 28, 2009

School Days

How comforting to know that at a time when the vacuous victim Bella Swan dominates the box office, the multiplex has room for a legitimate three-dimensional young woman. She may not be perfect, but she provides wonderful food for thought for the discerning film-goer. Meet Jenny Mellor, a young British girl growing up in an English suburb shortly before the Beatles made their first appearance and a new youth culture emerged. Jenny is incredibly bright (something she is never embarrassed or ashamed of) but yearns for more than just the stodgy world of academia where her every move has been calculated to get her into Oxford by her fuddy-duddy parents. But Jenny is conflicted. Once she pursues her life of letters then what? More academia. Living in a world where women haven't really transcended gender roles makes it difficult for her to see a life for herself beyond her schooling. Then, one day on the way home from rehearsing the cello she's caught in the rain and meets the dashing and much older David. What happens next gives Jenny an entirely new type of education in this well-crafted, very knowing character piece.
An Education comes to us from the festival circuit with much critical acclaim behind newcomer Carrey Mulligan who plays Jenny. When a performance gets this much hype one enters the film with very high expectations, or failing that, a mountain of doubt. Now this young ingenue must not only be good but defy my highest expectations. Miss Mulligan was going to have an uphill battle as some reviews have compared her to no less an iconic presence then Audrey Hepburn. What a relief and a pleasure that Mulligan not only meets expectations but surpasses them. From her first moments of the film, but especially once she is dripping wet in the rain, pins the audience to their seat with a battering ram of charisma and ethereal movie star looks. She also has that rarest of qualities in young actresses, a real life and intelligence behind her eyes. Mulligan is greatly aided in her portrayal by the deep characterization that author Nick Hornby imbues in each character in his screenplay. Jenny is bright and makes what she perceives to be good decisions. She's independent minded without coming off as whiny and immature, though she is not immune from behaving like a child. She is that wonderful swirling mass of well-realized contradictions that appears ever so rarely in films.
Mulligan may be the brightest light in this lamp, but she is hardly the only performer worthy of mention. Peter Sarsgaard is perfectly cast as David, who seems too good to be true. A cultured older man, always armed with the perfect quip, a cunning observation and a seemingly infinite number of opportunities to immerse Jenny into high cultures with trips to art auction, symphonies, night clubs and even Paris. Sarsgaard is well utilized here in that we in the audience can instantly see why he is appealing to Jenny while at the same time feel oddly uneasy about him. The same can be said for his companions as played by Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike. Good looking and pleasant but something vaguely sinister about them.
The film nimbly moves from coming of age story to a story of social mobility, a story of morality and living a fulfilled life. It would be easy to make the adults in this film simple archetypes; strict disciplinarians and easy-to-trick enablers but time and again Hornby's script peels back layers to the grown adults in Jenny's life. Director Lone Scherfig mines a lot of comedic moments from Alfred Molina as Jenny's father but as the film builds it becomes increasingly apparent that his actions and behavior don't stem strictly from a need to force Jenny into making defiant decisions. Emma Thompson as Jenny's headmistress is cutting and unforgettable in a few terse meetings with Jenny. The same goes for Olivia Williams who also shows up in a few brief spurts as a concerned teacher (and who has come a long way from the distant Ms. Cross in Rushmore). Hornby writes these characters with great panache and densely enough so that the film feels like a play, as would most stories that focus primarily on dialogue and ideas. However, backed by Scherfig, the plot is imbued with grand settings and sweeping moments to enable the audience to get swept up in the new world that seduces Jenny. Its a world I was glad to be taken away to and will likely be returning to it again in my end of the year list.

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