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Review: “An Education” (2009)

The pure miracle of “An Education,” adapted from Lynn Barber’s memoir by author Nick Hornby, who doesn’t deal in schmaltz, is that there are many missteps the film could make and does not. Thirtysomething David (Peter Sarsgaard),  wooing a teen-age girl, could come off like a leering pedophile, but he doesn’t. Jenny (Carey Mulligan, bursting with promise), the schoolgirl besotted with him, could be oversexed jailbait or a helpless victim, but she isn’t. Their tentative romance could seem indecent, even tawdry, but it doesn’t. Lone Scherfig’s “An Education” is more delicate, more understanding of the intricacies of human wants, than that.

Reflect, for a moment, on one of the film’s earliest scenes, where Jenny and David meet for the first time. An afternoon London shower has soaked her and her cello, and in swoops David, part snake in the grass and part concerned music lover. He’s worried, he quips, about her instrument, even offering to give the cello a ride. Watch her expression in these moments; Mulligan affects a curious smile, a playful but knowing one implying she not only knows David’s game but gets a little thrill from playing along. She knows she won’t be the same girl after meeting this man that she was before. There’s a spark in Mulligan’s eyes, too, that tells us “An Education” won’t be a weepy melodrama about an adult using a child but a story of two people who see in each other opportunities to get what they believe they need, or perhaps merely want.

After that first meeting, David sets about getting what he wants: Jenny. He’s good enough at courtship that there’s a slightly disquieting feeling he’s done this before, perhaps many times. (It can’t be stressed enough how perfect Sarsgaard is for this part; he exudes charm but also finds neediness in David that isn’t off-putting.) First come flowers on the doorstep that anger Jenny’s father Jack (Alfred Molina, perenially enjoyable); the ever-winsome David’s just getting warmed up. Then he shows up in their home, the picture of smoothness, able to quiet their worries about him taking Jenny to a classical concert with disarming politeness and promises his aunt will be there. It’s almost comical that Jack and Marjorie (Cara Seymour) seem less prepared for David’s charm than Jenny is, and it isn’t long before they’re approving school-night dinners in fancy restaurants and weekend jaunts with his glamorous friends Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike, who deserved a Best Supporting Actress nod from the Academy). They welcome Jenny so readily it almost seems they’re re-enacting a routine. Pike in particular leaves a delicate but lasting impression. For all her furs, French perfumes and twinkling jewels, there’s a wariness in her face every time she looks at Jenny, as though Helen could speak from experience but chokes back her words. Helen might know that Jenny could be her in 15 years, and Jenny’s teacher (Olivia Williams) seems to know the dangers inherent in David’s pursuit.

Delicate, again, is the appropriate word to describe how “An Education” goes about developing Jenny and David’s relationship. Hornby’s screenplay keeps the drama to a minimum until it becomes necessary to the storyline, and even then complications — which might be explosive and messy in lesser films — are handled with care. Behind the camera, Scherfig favors close-up shots of the more serene moments, the little interactions, touches and glances that provide all the meaning we need. The director trains his camera on the actors and more specifically on Mulligan’s face and hands, finding the awkward, swan-like grace in the way she exits a car, steals a sideways glance at David or taps the ashes from her French cigarette. The camera, it’s obvious, has fallen hard for this young woman.

Only the steely-hearted could resist Mulligan’s charms, for their is much to love. Chatter about her Audrey Hepburn-ness abounds, and yet this 24-year-old emerges, at the end of “An Education,” as a true original, someone in full command of her considerable acting gifts. She keeps much to herself, but you won’t soon forget that face and those weary eyes. They’ll keep you wondering and worrying about the real damage done.

Grade: A

One to Watch: “An Education”

I’ve come to believe that movies choose us as much as we choose them. Maybe that makes me a bit of a romantic (which is sort of revolutionary, since I’m a hard-line skeptic about most things), but movies keep finding their way to me when I’m ready to see them. Case in point: “An Education.”

Now don’t start thinking I’m excited about this one because of some beautiful, tawdry affair I had at age 16 with a much-older man who used me for my lithe teenage body but ultimately taught me many a deep life lesson in the process. This is not the case. (I suspect the reason is because in high school I never met any older men as effortlessly handsome as Peter Sarsgaard.) No, I’m eager to see “An Education” because it’s the kind of boundary-pushing, morally complex film I don’t believe I could have appreciated 10, or even five, years ago. Use “Lars and the Real Girl” as a reference point. At age 16, could anyone have grasped the strange beauty of a movie about a damaged touch-me-not who finds true love with a life-sized (and anatomically correct!) sex doll?

These days I like to think I’ve grown enough to appreciate movies that force me to question my beliefs, standards, ideas about the world and the way people interact within that world.

Or maybe I’ve just gotten tired of movies where the guy gets the girl, they roll off into the sunset in their luxury SUV and everything is kittens, sunshine and rainbows.


Quick Picks: “Revolutionary Road,” “Last Chance Harvey”

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet pair up again -- equally dire consequences -- in "Revolutionary Road."

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet pair up again -- with equally dire consequences -- in "Revolutionary Road."

“Revolutionary Road” (Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael Shannon)

Deferring dreams, poet Langston Hughes warned us over half a century ago, is a messy, even explosive business. Nowhere is that truth more evident than Sam Mendes’ gorgeously lensed, powerfully acted “Revolutionary Road.” In fact, Frank (DiCaprio), a dissatisfied businessman, and April, his deeply unhappy wife, have a powder keg of a suburban New England 1950s marriage — she wants a new life in Paris and will do anything to make it happen; he wants the change, too, but lacks the guts to leave the comfortable, settled job and life he knows. All that dissatisfaction translates into an atmosphere of unrelenting tension and despair communicated beautifully by DiCaprio and Winslet. DiCaprio finds the right mix of uncontrollable anger and wordless despair in Frank, a kind of Everyman who doesn’t like to look back but can’t quite move forward, either. He won’t be honest with himself, the mentally ill son (a superbly caustic Shannon) of a neighbor harshly points out, so he’s just stuck. As for Winslet, well, this might be the best acting she’s done (which is really saying something). She’s equal parts bitterness and vulnerability as April, and her eyes alone — sad but anxious, like those of a deer trapped in headlights — are enough to make “Revolutionary Road” much more than some whiny diatribe on suburban life. This one hits right where it hurts: the heart.

Grade: A

“Last Chance Harvey” (Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson)

It’s perhaps not an accident that Hoffman plays a commercial jingle writer in “Last Chance Harvey,” a quietly charming romantic comedy that at times, most unfortunately, seems like a clever commercial ruined by loud, formulaic music. On second thought, no, that’s exactly what Joel Hopkins’ movie is. That’s a pity, too, because actors don’t come much more likable, charming, or deserving of a leading role than Hoffman and Thompson. Still, “Last Chance Harvey” isn’t quite a lost cause, probably because the aforementioned leads make — pardon, ahem, the pun — beautiful music together. Hoffman is Harvey, a divorced, failed jazz pianist-turned-jingle maker in London for his slightly estranged daughter’s wedding. At Heathrow, he meets Kate (Thompson), a survey taker who’s just weathered a really, really bad blind date. There aren’t sparks, exactly, but there is a conversation that, Roger Ebert might say, “threatens to continue for a lifetime.” The words turn into new friendship, then genuine affection, then trust, then love. The chief joy of “Last Chance Harvey” is watching that slow, satisfying bloom — and Hoffman and Thompson are up to the task. Hoffman nails Harvey’s moving transformation from dejection to hope, and nobody covers stark vulnerability with awkward humor quite like the divine Thompson. Seeing them stumble, then walk tentatively into romance feels like a breakthrough, and one bright enough to counter the “dramatic plot points” and cutesy background tunes. They don’t make romantic comedies like this anymore.

Grade: B+