Release Date: Oct. 9
Director: Lone Scherfig
Cinematographer: John de Borman
Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Dominic Cooper
Studio/Run Time: Sony Pictures Classics, 95 mins.
Sherfig and Hornby telegraph instead of relying on talented cast
It’s been said many times that 50 percent of a movie director’s job is casting, and An Education makes that case nicely. The film has star power behind the camera, with Lone Scherfig directing and Nick Hornby writing the screenplay, but the film’s nuance comes from its two lead actors—relative newcomer Carey Mulligan and the ever-reliable Peter Sarsgaard—who enrich a conventional story that, otherwise, runs on little more than air.
Made up and shot to look like a homely Audrey Hepburn, Mulligan plays 16-year-old Jenny, an excellent high-school student—except in Latin, where she’s middling—and a budding cellist. Her excessively stern father (Alfred Molina) presses her to get that Latin grade up so she can go to Oxford, but she’d rather listen to songs by French chanteuse Juliette Gréco than study after school. As Jenny, Mulligan gives a perfect performance—perky around boys but never flirty, exasperated around her father but never sulky. Like her character, she seems wise beyond her years. Of course, it helps that she’s 24.
But for all the acclaim her performance is earning, as much or more belongs to Sarsgaard’s David, a random stranger who gives poor Jenny a ride one day when she’s stuck in the rain with her cello. With textbook tact and enviable charm, David escorts her home in a wonderfully realized “meet cute” moment that barely evinces anything inappropriate about a thirtysomething man plying a 16-year-old girl with talk of chamber music. On the surface, it’s entirely wholesome, but Sarsgaard can dress, talk and behave like a perfect gentleman while still hinting at something vaguely sinister. It’s not just his age, and it’s not just the careful writing. It’s something about his face or his manner, something about the way he carries experience in his voice. Maybe David’s a good guy. But maybe he’s not. And that ambiguity has been an asset for nearly every Sarsgaard role. For An Education, it’s essential.
David and Jenny eventually begin a romance that draws the girl into David’s circle of older, more worldly friends and involves a string of escalating vices—skipping class, smoking, maybe even sex and theft. The story pushes Jenny to see how far she’ll go before snapping back to her good-girl roots. And if her parents would seem to be deterrents, well, David plies them, too, with the same kind of lyrical conversation.
Also, he smokes Bachelor Brand cigarettes. Scherfig shows us multiple times. And he leaves them next to incriminating documents in his glove compartment. Such awkward strokes make a mockery of the character’s subtleties, just as the sudden appearance of the saccharine theme from A Summer Place thumbs its nose at Jenny’s musical favorites. And every appearance of the parents flattens the characters further.
Having set up all kinds of potential with the mystery of David’s past and the uncertainty of Jenny’s future, Scherfig and Hornby don’t seem to know how to unravel the plot. Instead of staying true to the characters and letting the chips fall where they may, they wrap the film up with a perfunctory, after-school-specialized object lesson. These characters are seeking balance between stability and life’s pleasures, but An Education can’t seem to handle the difficult task of finding that balance for itself. Someone’s thumb is on the scale. A smart young woman like Jenny ought to come out of the experience a more—not less—interesting person.