He's a smooth operator, this David. He's 30 years old, and Jenny is 16, but when he can pull it off, because he's charmed her parents as thoroughly as he's charmed their daughter; he doesn't stop at the "you didn't tell me you had a sister" line when he meets her mother, but he brings over good wine and regales them with stories of his worldliness and sophistication, and makes dating a woman half his age seem like its perfectly natural and downright urbane. What's more, he makes his own savoir-faire seem a shared commodity--he takes them in, and makes them part of his world. But then, that's how he gets Jenny, too.
An Education is the story of their romance, and of how Jenny comes out of it stronger and, for better or worse, wiser. It is based on a memoir by British writer Lynn Barber, remembering her teen years in Twickenham, London in the early 1960s; the screenplay adaptation is by the great Nick Hornby, whose books inspired the films High Fidelity, About a Boy, and Fever Pitch. The director, Lone Scherfig, is a Dane unknown to me, though not for long; she spins Barber's memories and Hornby's script into a film of rare and fragile intelligence and grace.
Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a dedicated student, pushed hard towards an Oxford education by her father (Alfred Molina) and, to a lesser degree, her mother (Cara Seymour). Jenny's never really questioned the life ahead of her--until she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard). David drives a sportscar and knows about music and art and talks about taking her to concerts and nightclubs and even (gasp) Paris. They usually socialize with his friends Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike), who seem nice enough (mostly), though they look a little weary when they first lay their eyes on Jenny. It seems that they might have been through this with David before.
Sarsgaard, who remains one of our most interesting and unpredictable actors, gets David just right--he's charming and cheerful without seeming oily or creepy. But he sees all the angles and has all of his moves planned out, and when Jenny reacts understandably to a revelation about how he makes his money, his response ("Don't be bourgeois") is calculated--and effective. He's not alone, though; the picture is like a master class in acting, and there's not a bad performance in the bunch. I don't know that Molina's ever been better in a film (which is saying something), while Olivia Williams and Emma Thompson's authority figures are made admirably three-dimensional, even when they're functioning primarily as plot points. Director Scherfig gets the importance of the film's sense of ensemble; when Jenny tells her mother that her first date with David was "the best night of my life," Scherfig knows that they key to the scene isn't her saying that, but her mother's wordless reaction to it. Everything else, it would seem, is inevitable; the film is imbued with that sense of inevitability, so that even when we're hitting firmly within the conventional three-act structure, nothing feels convoluted or even terribly prepared. It unfolds with the certitude of real life.
But the film lives and dies by Mulligan's work as Jenny, and it is a beautiful performance to behold. This is a tremendous actor. She's got a wonderful way of spinning a line, giving it a polish of wit and real bite, but more than that, she's a joy simply to watch--the way that she listens, and the way that you see her think before she speaks. Watch her cutaways during an early date that is not going well, or the look on her face as she sits in her first nightclub and drinks it all in; she's wonderfully expressive without ever even approaching overacting. She's so strong and interesting, in fact, that when she crumbles late in the film, it's devastating. This is a performance of tremendous dexterity and poise from an actor we'll be hearing much more from.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
Sony's 1080p MPEG-4 AVC transfer is crisp and dimensional, overcoming the drabness of the picture's color scheme (hey, it was postwar Britain) and pulling the viewer in to its understated world. The 2.35:1 image is handsome and filmlike, though grain is a tad too heavy in a couple of isolates spots (particularly a dark bar during their Oxford visit). Skin tones are natural and details are tight and lifelike, and the occasional bursts of color (particularly the lush greens of their country weekend) are lovingly reproduced. It's not a knockout visual presentation, but it's a strong and accurate one.
The disc sports a rich, clean 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix that is heavy on dialogue but also nicely immersive when called for (as in the early rumbling thunderstorm or the glitzy nightclub where they end up on their first date). Dialogue reproduction is clear and atmospheric effects are well-rendered, while Paul Englishby's music (and the well-chosen source cues) underscore without overwhelming.
English, English SDH, and French subtitles are also included.
Director Lone Scherfig and actors Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard contribute an Audio Commentary track that is smart and good-natured; the trio has a nice chemistry, and the track manages to both entertain and inform.
"The Making of An Education" (8:59) is a brief but well-made featurette; the format is familiar, but there's a candor and roughness to the interviews (which contain some real insight) that keeps it from feeling too slick and fluffy. "Walking the Red Carpet" (8:25), on the other hand, is a shiny, sleek, glammed-up look at the picture's Los Angeles premiere, with red carpet footage and interviews. Eleven Deleted Scenes (16:12 total) follow; some are but brief throwaways, but there is a fascinating alternate ending and a are a few other scenes that add some flavor to the film (particularly those dealing with the school chums Jenny abandons).
The original Theatrical Trailer (2:24) and several additional Sony Previews finish out the bonus features. The disc is also BD-Live enabled, but no bonus features were available at the time of review.
Scherfig's direction is emotionally charged without being showy--it doesn't have to be. There are flashes of style here or there (the faux-French New Wave photography of the Paris sequence, a subtle push-in on Jenny during a key climactic moment), but she mostly trusts the story and trusts her actors, and for good reason. The closing scenes feel slightly rushed and there are some bothersome loose ends (particularly with regards to Danny and Helen), but those objections aside, An Education is a knowing, affectionate portrait of a man who was surely the best and worst thing that ever happened to a girl who probably should have known better.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.