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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    ‘An Education’ a pitch-perfect evocation of ’62 Britain

    Some films are worth seeing for their credit sequences alone, and “”An Education,”” with its bouncy, witty opening, is among them. It sets us up to believe we’re about to see a giddy romp, and we are — but it’s also exactly what it promises in its title: an “”education.”” It’s about how you learn more, sometimes, from giddy romps than you do from all those years of Latin.

    Carey Mulligan stars as Jenny, a smart and pretty 16-year-old who spends her days sitting quietly in class and her evenings lounging around in bed listening to her French pop records — until her father (Alfred Molina) bangs on the ceiling and tells her to get back to her studying.

    One afternoon, as she faces an unpleasant walk home from her cello lesson through the rain, an older man named David (Peter Sarsgaard) stops his car and offers her a ride. Jenny at first politely declines, as we would. Then she takes another look at the man and agrees. He’s not particularly handsome, but his manner is so open and engaging that she can’t imagine he’s anything but a perfect gentleman.

    Before Jenny knows it, David’s picking her up to take her to jazz clubs and coming over with an armful of packages on her birthday, and taking her to hang out with people who say things like, “”I always think I’m going to my own funeral when I listen to classical music.”” Her parents are so completely won over when they meet the charming David that they wind up letting him take her on weekend trips — first to Oxford, then to Paris.

    The film makes an interesting point about class. Jenny’s father, so determined to have nothing but the best for his daughter, doesn’t see anything wrong with marrying her off to this fabulous, seemingly wealthy man, with his celebrity impressions and stories about dinners at Oxford — despite the fact that he’s more than twice her age.

    In its quiet way, this film is rather suspenseful. It’s so obvious to the audience that something must be amiss with David, despite all appearances, that we wind up scrutinizing his every move, like someone scrunching up his eyes to better see a far-off object. And the film lets us know that Jenny is studying him just as intently; when she receives the first hint that something might be shady, she reacts as if a bomb has gone off.

    To reveal any more would be criminal, but the film’s visual deftness deserves praise. “”An Education”” looks bright and appealing at first, but the director, Lone Scherfig, darkens the film’s color palette during the second half, as Jenny grows disillusioned. London’s bright colors become bleaker-looking; more and more scenes seem to take place at night.

    “”An Education”” is a nearly flawless movie, pitch-perfect in its evocation of a specific time and place. We never feel that we’re anywhere but 1962 England, and while we never step outside Jenny’s perspective, we come to know the world around her a little bit better, perhaps, than she can.

    Mulligan is delightful as Jenny, but the supporting cast, particularly Olivia Williams (who played Jason Schwartzman’s teacher in “”Rushmore””) as Jenny’s favorite teacher, is equally good. Molina, as Jenny’s father, hits every line with a kind of gruff explosiveness, like an old baseball player meeting the ball with his bat. Sarsgaard almost steals the movie as the all-but-unreadable David. It’s to his credit that he manages to suggest an inner life for David without resorting to clichés.

    Some critics have complained that the film is predictable. But after a diet of tepid, cliché-ridden coming-of-age dramas, “”An Education”” is like a drink of cool, fresh water. Again and again, we tense up as we expect to meet a cliché — only to relax as the film lightly dances around it. Near the end, a major character makes his exit from the movie in a manner at once anticlimactic and utterly appropriate. “”This is what would really happen,”” I thought to myself — and it’s what most movies would never let happen. The film is as warm and winning as Sarsgaard’s smile — and, ultimately, just as tricky.

    The only jarring moment comes during the closing credits, when we’re suddenly knocked out of time by the presence of an obviously contemporary ballad. It isn’t a terrible song, but it reminds us that we aren’t in 1962 anymore — that we have, like Jenny, left that world behind. It’s the only truly sad moment in this sublimely bittersweet film.

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