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PARK CITY — Every now and then a performance comes along that takes Sundance by storm. This year, it’s Carey Mulligan’s star-making turn as a 16-year-old schoolgirl who falls under the spell an older man in early ’60s London in “An Education.”
Topped by a fine cast, a first-rate script by Nick Hornby and tight direction by Lone Scherfig, the film is a smart, moving but not inaccessible entry in the coming-of-age canon. Sony Pictures Classics scooped up the picture after a heated bidding war and should do well with its investment.
Scherfig and her team — production designer Andrew McAlpine and costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux — do a convincing job creating a repressed London still reeling from the war and not yet exploding with the counterculture. It’s a period when a seismic shift is just starting to stir.
It’s a fearful, drab world, and no one is more bored with it than Jenny (Mulligan), a straight-A student (except for Latin) at a stuffy all-girls school. She’s a bright kid with a yearning for culture and all things French. Her ambition is to wear black, smoke cigarettes, read books and try anything new. Enter David (Peter Sarsgaard), a knight in a shining sports car who gives her an education she wasn’t expecting.
Their meeting in the pouring rain on a London street is one of the cutest of meet-cutes. A music lover, David tells her to put the cello she’s carrying into his car to keep it dry and walk alongside since she surely wouldn’t take a ride with a strange man. Who could resist? Certainly not this curious, impressionable girl.
The biggest obstacle to their budding relationship is Jenny’s father, Jack (the wonderful Alfred Molina), a strict but loving middle-class parent who remembers the hard times of the war years and only wants the best for his daughter. That means Oxford, and he makes sure, in his sometimes overbearing way, that Jenny has the right extra curricular activities to get in.
Danny is not one of those activities, but he sweet-talks Jack into allowing him to take Jenny to a concert in the West End, which to Jack seems like an exotic place. One thing leads to another, and before long David is taking Jenny off to Oxford for the weekend, which in Jack’s distorted vision will be an asset to furthering her education.
The education she is getting has more to do with sultry singers in jazz clubs, fine food and a heretofore unknown world of expensive things. For his part, David is sweet: He’s not an ogre, and he respects Jenny’s wishes to remain a virgin until she’s 17, which is just around the corner. Hornby’s script keeps up the character’s mystery, and Scherfig wisely doesn’t push it. Eventually, what he’s up to is revealed, and it’s not on the up and up.
But Jenny is smitten and turns 17 in Paris, her dream come true. At that age, a child doesn’t have the judgment to see what’s happening, and that’s where parents should step in, but Jack and his wife (Cara Seymour) are blinded by the upward mobility the noveau riche David represents for the family.
Jenny doesn’t understand the subtle class warfare at work here; all she sees is a way out of her dreary life, but perhaps one that threatens her future. Mulligan captures every nuance of the character with an understated charm reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn. Her transformation from an English schoolgirl in a gray uniform to a lovely young and desirable woman is nothing short of miraculous.
But without Sarsgaard’s restrained and morally ambiguous performance, Mulligan would not be able to shine as brightly. Dominic Cooper is suitably smarmy as Danny, David’s best friend and partner in crime, and Rosamund Pike as his party girl girlfriend is a perfect new role model for Jenny. What makes “An Education” a special piece of work are the social forces going on beneath the surface that inform these all-too-human characters.
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Production companies: BBC Films, Endgame Entertainment
Cast: Peter Sarsgaard, Carey Mulligan, Alfred Molina, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike, Olivia Williams, Emma Thompson, Cara Seymour
Director: Lone Scherfig
Writer: Nick Hornby
Based on a memoir by: Lynn Barber
Producers: Finola Dwyer, Amanda Posey
Executive producers: David M. Thompson, Jamie Laurenson, Nick Hornby, James D. Stern, Douglas E. Hansen, Wendy Japhet
Director of photography: John de Borman
Production designer: Andrew McAlpine
Music: Paul Englishby
Costume designer: Odile Dicks-Mireaux
Editor: Barney Pilling
Sales: Odyssey Entertainment
No rating, 95 minutes
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