An Education (9/10)

A man pulls up to the curb in the rain, feigning concern that the cello you’re carrying in a bag will suffer water damage, so won’t you please put in his car so he can drive alongside you, because you’d have to be a fool to get into the same car with a strange older man. So you oblige him, until the rain bothers you enough that you ask to get into the car, fooled into thinking that you, not he, made the decision.
This pitch-perfect scene occurs in the first fifteen minutes of “An Education,” between Jenny, a young high school girl about to graduate in Britain in the 1960’s, and David, an older man who is a smooth talker and wise in the ways of the world. It showcases in a microcosm of the whole movie what life outside of school can do to you: woo you with its charms and blind you to its manipulations, however “honest” they may be, and trick you into believing that life works one way, and no other.

When Jenny first meets David, she is stifled by her life, set on a course decided by her parents long ago, a course headed straight for a fine education at Oxford. When David comes along, a seemingly wise older gentleman who has the utmost respect for her, he sweeps her off her feet as he takes her to the fanciest clubs, the most beautiful concerts, and the finest dining. Along the way, David and Jenny grow close, their love for culture and finer things narrowing the gap in age even as her new life distances Jenny from her old one.

At first “An Education’s” plot seems deceptively simple, but as the movie progresses it continually reveals deeper hidden layers to its characters, until not a one of them could be characterized as one-dimensional. All of them seem like they could step off the screen easily, and the movie consistently defies simplification. Of course, the performances are a huge part of this. Alfred Molina gives Jenny’s father a believable brusqueness and thick-headed stubbornness that reveals itself to be much more than the over-bearing father routine we’ve seen so many times before. His wife, played by Cara Seymour, offers a reasonable antithesis to his character and their marriage seems like one that could exist in the real world; not overly lovey-dovey, but not a constant shouting match either.

Without a doubt, though, the backbone of the movie are the performances of Peter Sarsgaard as David and Carey Mulligan as Jenny. Not only do they come across as developiong an organic and believable chemistry, but they each function as distintincly separate entities, not two cardboard cutouts created for the purpose of enjoying one another’s company. They have faults, foibles, and hidden depths the film explores with care and tenderness. Mulligan is the best thing about the movie, giving Jenny an instantly arresting innocence, while Sarsgaard plays a man on a semi-mysterious path with all the charm in the world radiating through that winning smile and those warm eyes.

“An Education” never makes the mistake of condescending to its audience or undermining its message and the trueness of its characters through simpleton themes and pedestrian values. By the end of the movie nobody is left with easy answers, and the characters, like in all great films, ride off into the sunset of the unknown, unsure of their fugure, but still educated and, possibly, edified by their experiences. And really, what more can any of us ask for?

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