Culture class

Pub date October 13, 2009
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

FILM Squeezed between cuts to California’s higher education system and the dizzying price of tuition, students can take heart — as well as some bittersweet heartbreak — with An Education. Comfort yourself with the fact that a dearth of classes will leave plentiful time to sample life lessons of an extracurricular, taboo-testing ilk.

The pursuit of knowledge — both carnal and cultural — are at the tender core of this end-of-innocence valentine by Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig (who first made her well-tempered voice heard with her 2000 Dogme entry, Italian for Beginners), based on journalist Lynn Barber’s memoir. Screenwriter Nick Hornby breaks further with his Peter Pan protagonists with this adaptation: no man-boy mopers or misfits here. Rather, 16-year-old schoolgirl Jenny (Carey Mulligan, justifiably earning praise for her plucky, pluckable vulnerability) is a good girl and ace student, raring for the wisdom she’s only beginning to grasp as she sings along with her Juliette Greco LPs.

It’s 1961, and England is only starting to stir from its somber, all-too-sober post-war slumber. The Twickenham home of Jenny’s parents, Jack (Alfred Molina) and Majorie (Cara Seymour), positively vibrates with their parental aspirations and a dank, tea-cozy-ed conservatism. The carefully cloistered Jenny is on track for Oxford, though swinging London and its high-style freedoms beckon just around the corner.

Ushering in those freedoms — a new, more class-free world disorder — is the charming David (Peter Sarsgaard), stopping to give Jenny and her cello a ride in the rain and soon proffering concerts and late-night suppers in the city. He’s a sweet-faced, feline outsider: cultured, Jewish, and given to playing fast and loose in the margins of society, whether he’s installing a black family in a neighborhood to spur a mini-white flight or making off with vulnerable villagers’ heirlooms alongside pal Danny (Dominic Cooper). The two, paired with Danny’s bubbly, bobble-headed girlfriend Helen (Rosamund Pike), are styled as the UK counterparts of Breathless-era Jean-Paul Belmondo and Purple Noon-esque Alain Delon, seductive and stylish scalawags in the know and on the make, taking advantage of the fluid moment.

The pair purveys a sophistication that sidesteps class — and signals a change that extends beyond the borders of Twickenham and London — as David successfully woos Jenny’s charm-deprived parents with white lies that grow increasingly daring and dire. But can you blame the gentle cad? A gamesman and connoisseur, David can see Jenny for the gem she is and appreciate her innocence with the knowing pleasure of a decadent playing all the angles, even as Jenny’s teacher Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams) battles over her star pupil’s future with protofeminist fervor.

The stakes are believably high, thanks to An Education‘s careful attention to time and place and its gently glamored performances. Scherfig revels in the smart, easy-on-eye curb appeal of David’s gang of outsiders while giving a nod to the college-educated empowerment Jenny risks by skipping class to jet to Paris. And Mulligan lends it all credence by letting all those seduced, abandoned, conflicted, rebellious feelings flicker unbridled across a face reminiscent of those guileless ingénues who came of age in another age: Sandra Dee of Imitation of Life (1959) and Gidget-era Sally Field. This is just one lesson among many, in the life of a girl who pulls back from the precipice.

AN EDUCATION opens Fri/16 in San Francisco.