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An Education

Lone Scherfig

About four or five minutes into An Education, a film about a sixteen year-old girl who has an affair with a plausible rogue at least twice her age, I knew that Carey Mulligan, the actress who plays Jenny, a bright, Oxford-bound student, is loaded with star potential. Correction: this movie makes her a star; all she has to do now is to follow up with more work of the same quality. It's hard to imagine that many of her movies will be better than An Education, but then that's what rising stars are all about. For the moment, all we can say is that we expect Ms Mulligan to take her place in a line of great English leading ladies Wendy Hiller, Vivien Leigh, Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, Emma Thompson, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Kate Winslet. What we can't do is foretell the nature of her contribution to the art. We must, therefore, indulge in the paradox of expecting that many of Ms Mulligan's movies will be better than this one.

For the moment, we note Carey Mulligan's natural speed, which is not only great but comprehensive. The education of the title is partly ours: we're taught how completely the actress can carry her entire character from one state of mind to another. This is especially alluring in the portrayal of a girl who has long planned to save her virginity for her seventeenth birthday and to lose it then. When she realizes that her plan is about to come true, and in Paris to boot, she is untroubled by second thoughts: the imminence of her deflowerment does not chill her feet. On the contrary, she jumps in feet-first, only to remark, afterward, how surprising it is that "all those songs, all those poems" have been inspired by something so short. As she says this, she holds a cigarette in her hand, elegantly ranged alongside her hip. But when she takes the cigarette to her mouth, she holds it like a schoolgirl. This is not to say that she isn't ready for what has just happened. It's to say that each of our various parts has its own learning curve. Jenny is all for learning.

Indeed, the whole point of the story is that Jenny abandons her academic promise solely because she finds the life lessons offered by the companionship of an older man to be more interesting than her studies. Although Jenny loves to dress up and drink champagne as much as anybody, she is not silly about it, any more than she is sentimental about sex: for Jenny, sensual pleasure is mentally challenging. She is always wide awake. As such, she is the first person to realize that her little experiment in alternative education is doomed. And she is the first to understand that it must be abandoned. Nobody tells Jenny to give up her lover and go back to school. What alarms her, in fact, is that some key people (namely her parents) haven't stood in the way, and that other key people (her teachers) have been unable, owing to their own lack of what we'll call worldliness, to make a convincing case for their faith in the richness of academic life. It is Jenny who teaches herself, once she finally gets to Oxford, to pretend to a boyfriend ("and they were all boys") that she has never been to Paris before. It's not that she wants to fool him into thinking that she is another kind of virgin. It's that she wants to have another, better go at seeing Paris for the first time.

So Jenny's education is dual, and each aspect affords a distinct pleasure. First, of course, there is the great and very naughty fun (best encapsulated in the upheaval, halfway between a grin and a smirk, that bedevils Jenny's mouth) of watching David pull the wool over her parents' eyes; and then there is the more sobering, but also deeply refreshing, lesson of putting her life back together after the inevitable (if muted) smash.

As David Stern, the man whose spurious largesse has to be effaced, Peter Sarsgaard achieves an extraordinary effect. David ought to be creepy, pure and simple. He is a kind of pedophile, a man who likes to "be romantic" with girls. He wants to call the girls "Minnie," and he wants the girls to call him "Bubble-Up." Only a girl would fail to find this fragmentary role-playing unutterably flat, sad, and pathetic, but if we do not recoil in disgust it is because Mr Sarsgaard presents David not as a sordid pervert but as a wistful dreamer. (And our Jenny has the wit to demand that her Big Night will be passed without the aid of such nomenclature). It is clear that just being with Jenny brings David great happiness. Like most dreamers, David cuts the sharper corners of consciousness; he tries to exclude the unpleasant facts of his life from his relationship with Jenny. But this doesn't make him a jerk, as perhaps it ought to do. It makes him an optimist. His optimism, like his fantasies, is not properly adult; David is the sort of man who would heartily endorse the famous proposition that Hollywood is "high school with money." He and his business partner, Henry (Dominic Cooper, looking hooded, tired, and far from pretty), have found a few crooked byways to easy money. The money makes it easy for them to appear to be sophisticated grown-ups, but it also makes it easy for them to remain as adolescent as David's targets.

That Jenny is not the first bright young thing to fall into David's arms ought to be signaled by the friendly reception that she gets from Henry's moll, Helen (Rosamund Pike, looking drugged, lobotomized, and far from intelligent), but we don't pick it up, because we're too entertained (as is Jenny) by Helen's dimness, which generates a disproportionate share of the film's laughs. Hearing that David has proposed to Jenny, Helen congratulates her upon no longer having to read books magazines are reading enough. (And any day now, according to Helen's most unforgettable pearl of wisdom, even "the Latins" won't be speaking Latin.) We assume that Helen's warm welcome is a sign of her stupidity: how can she not have a problem with the fact that Jenny is still a child? Here's how: if Helen ever had a problem with it, she has had plenty of opportunity to get over it. Seeing the movie for the second time, I expect, will be like being Jenny, and refracting everything that she remembers about her evenings in Pall Mall.

Playing the four adults who can't or won't take care of Jenny as she ends up having to take care of herself, Alfred Molina, Cara Seymour, Olivia Williams and Emma Thompson all give boldly but surely carved performances. Mr Molina's Jack is almost as dim as Helen, while Cara Seymour gives one of the great modern silent performances, acting with her eyes, yearning for her daughter's life to be meaningful even if her idea of meaningful is a pipe dream. (October 2009)

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