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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