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I understand the Academy wanting to reward one of their own, but the surprise female performer of last year was Carey Mulligan, the star of an independent sleeper that should have risen nearer the top of the ten films deemed worthy of a Best Picture Oscar. For sheer entertainment value, An Education easily ranks 2 or 3 on Savant's list of Best movies of 2009.
It's also a triumph for favorite director Lone Scherfig, a talented Danish upstart with a flair for bringing out spirited performances, as seen in her wonderful 2000 comedy-drama Italian for Beginners. Scherfig was a replacement director on An Education, a choice for which we should be grateful.
An Education is the story of an English girl in the early 1960s that's somewhat reminiscent of films of those years, the ones with confused but loveable heroines played by the likes of Rita Tushingham and Lynn Redgrave. Those women tended to be working class, if not completely rootless, whereas An Education's Jenny is a lower middle class girl from distinctly non-posh surroundings. Jenny (Carey Mulligan) works like a dog at her studies and has earned a good chance for entrance to Oxford. But she feels bored by school and frustrated by her domineering father Jack (Alfred Molina), who prefers that she do nothing but prep for exams -- he even discourages her from practicing her cello.
All this changes when Jenny meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), a Prince Charming with immaculate taste, a sports car and the gift of cultured speech. Although he's in his twenties and Jenny is only sixteen, David easily talks Jack into taking his daughter on a date. Jenny enjoys a real concert and has dinner at a fancy club, and meets David's sophisticated, stimulating friends Danny and Helen (Dominic Cooper & Rosamund Pike). It's the best night of her life. The romance lends the schoolgirl enormous status and notoriety.
Swept off her feet, Jenny is soon Danny's sweetheart. Helen seems to be along for the good times, but Danny and David know and care about art and culture. Considering the wonderful life David seems eager to provide, Jenny begins to think that perhaps staying in school and attending college is no longer essential. Equally impressed by David, Jack likes the idea of Jenny going straight to a happy married life, relieving him of having to finance her education.
An Education begins with an upbeat title instrumental cut to a montage of girls' school activities. Only a Hula Hoop gives us a strong clue as to the decade represented. Jenny is a complete doll, an ultra-cute, reserved and ladylike teen graced with maturity beyond her years. She loves her school chums but feels distant from them when it comes to things like music appreciation. She's particularly interested in all things French -- the language, Juliette Greco records. Jenny also sees her parents' limitations. Her father Jack is a penny pincher and her mother hardly ever speaks her mind. She loves them but sees nothing wrong with omitting the entire truth when it comes to what she and David are up to. David talks Jack into letting him take Jenny overnight to Oxford, supposedly to visit the famous author C.S. Lewis. But David's chaperone story is a phony, as they're really planning to sleep together. It's nothing that teenagers haven't done before and Jenny is a level-minded girl ... David thoughtfully agrees with her request that they not make love until her seventeenth birthday.
We're totally on Jenny's side when she runs into disapproval at school. English teacher Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams) can't hide her displeasure that her best student is throwing away her future, and the rumors of Jenny's activities eventually reach stern headmistress (Emma Thompson). The woman can't censure Jenny for what she does off campus, but she has no qualms against implying that her pupil is a tramp, especially when she learns that Jenny's older boyfriend is a Jew. Not at all pleased, Jenny fires back that these women are frustrated in their academic lives.
Carey Mulligan is a dreamboat and a revelation, playing the kind of naturally superior girl we worshipped in high school. The actress easily overcomes the challenge of appearing mature and cultured while also naïve and impressionable -- the average fashion-plate actress these days looks born to the sexual fast lane. Peter Sarsgaard uncorks the charm as needed, and impresses us as a swinging gentleman from the years just prior to the Mod explosion. Alfred Molina has been accused of overacting as Frank, but I thought his blowhard pushover of a daddy was just right -- I met my share of American versions of Frank when dating high school girls. The charming Rosamund Pike is spot-on as a culture-challenged beauty. She nods off at classical concerts but likes the fringe benefits, like weekend jaunts to Paris. Emma Thompson nails her rigid martinet without making her into an ogre, while the fascinating Olivia Williams drops all pretense of glamour to portray an educated woman more complex than Jenny realizes.
An Education also presents a seductive London (of 1959? 1963?) that some of us would give anything to have experienced. I wonder if any of it was augmented with effects, as I was too absorbed by the drama to keep an eye out for anachronistic autos, etc.. David drives an exotic Bristol sports sedan that looks appropriately uncomfortable, but dreamy beyond belief. I'll bet that the car is what makes David appeal to much of the male audience. We want to BE this guy.
A LOT more happens in this picture. Savant's lofty mission as a reviewer is to cover movies without spoiling them, and I was so impressed by the narrative turns taken by An Education that I think viewers should have the pleasure of discovering them for themselves. For that reason I don't want to discuss the plot further, even though the character clues in Nick Hornby's Oscar nominated script beg for discussion.
Therefore I'll only offer my personal revelation on the film, out of context. Everybody assures us that "beautiful people" -- models, those with special talents, those with obvious advantages like Jenny -- are as apt as anyone to make big life-choice mistakes no matter how poised or socially adept they may seem. An Education caught me off guard big-time on this issue. I saw the Michael Caine movie Alfie at an impressionable age, and its strong human story cured me of any desire to be a "cad" ladykiller (less promising fellows than me have succeeded at that career). An Education gave me a bit of the same feeling.
Sony Pictures Classics' Blu-ray of An Education is a stunning widescreen transfer derived from elements originally shot on film (Super 35). Colors are rich and seductive, allowing us to enjoy seeing Jenny blossom from school uniforms to fancy gowns.
The extras begin with a commentary by the principals. Lone Scherfig, Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard offer plenty of insights on the shooting, which apparently was not a big-budget affair. A making-of featurette gives us a chance to see the attractive cast and interesting director between takes, and mull over the fact that Sarsgaard's English accent is not his own -- he was born in Illinois. A 'red carpet' extra has footage from a premiere at Hollywood's Egyptian theater. The actors seem more like well-behaved guests at a reunion than spoiled movie stars. Rosamund Pike mentions having a ball playing a dim-bulb beauty.
One good reason for those who have already enjoyed An Education to pick up a disc copy, is to see the deleted scenes. Some are just so -so, but an entire conclusion dropped from the film contains a confrontation scene between Jenny and David that fans won't want to miss.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
An Education Blu-ray rates:
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