Thursday, October 08, 2009

An Education

Class-conscious British society has long held a strange contempt for middle class ambitions of upward mobility. (After all, how often was Margaret Thatcher derided as a green-grocer’s daughter?) Still, Jack and Marjorie have that very American dream of a better life for their soon-to-be seventeen year-old daughter Jenny, but their hopes depend entirely on her acceptance to Oxford. However, there will be a slight detour on Jenny’s drive to the university in Danish director Lone Scherig’s very British coming-of-age story, An Education (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Jenny is a bright, likable kid who excels in all subjects except Latin. Her passion is the cello, her one parentally designated extracurricular activity. It is that cello that catches the eye of the devil-may-care David during a torrential rainfall. What starts as an innocent lift home quickly escalates into a steady thing. Suddenly, Jenny finds herself in with the smart-set, thanks to her thirty-something romantic interest.

Jack might push his daughter hard, but at heart he seems like a well meaning parent. That is why it is hard to believe he does not call a Bobby as soon as he meets the roguish David. It might be the swinging sixties (just barely), but Jack and Marjorie come across as distinctly 1950’s parents. Yet, they are both thoroughly charmed by Jenny’s much older suitor, even letting him take her on supposedly chaperoned overnight trips.

As David sweeps Jenny off her feet, she ignores several warning signs that should have given her pause—besides the obvious fact that he is in his thirties. Particularly troubling are his business dealings, which seem to involve dodgy real estate transactions and nicking antiques from unsuspecting senior citizens. Unfortunately, Jenny is so enamored with the sophisticated world he represents she glosses over these considerable issues of concern.

Carey Mulligan is already being hyped as a potential best actress nominee for her star-making turn as Jenny. Indeed, she has a winning screen presence, coming across as a refreshingly charming and intelligent kid. The fact that she shows some serious errors in judgment is not so hard to believe in the context of the film. After all, making mistakes is something smart people do all the time. The gullibility of her allegedly overprotective lower middle class parents is much more difficult to accept. To be fair, Alfred Molina has some genuinely touching scenes as Jack, but too often he brings to mind the kind of clueless parents seen in John Hughes movies.

A highly polished period production, Education evokes a strong sense of time and place: 1961 suburban London. The jazzy vocal stylings of Beth Rowley also nicely heighten the film’s nostalgic romanticism. Novelist Nick Hornby, best known for High Fidelity, adapted Lynn Barber’s memoir with surprising sensitivity, showing a real affinity for the sixteen year-old voice of the protagonist. However, his breezy screenplay and Mulligan’s appealing performance cannot fully paper over the creepiness of the mismatched lovers’ relationship.

An Education features a remarkably self-assured lead performance from the young Mulligan (as well as the brief but touching supporting work of Olivia Williams as her teacher Miss Stubbs). Ultimately though, the nature of its romance proves distractingly problematic in Scherfig’s ironically titled film, regardless of whatever the letter of British law stated in 1961. It opens tomorrow (10/9) at the Lincoln Plaza and Regal Union Square 14 Theaters.