angelophile: (Leon Peekaboo)
[personal profile] angelophile

An Education did well at this years' Oscars and it's easy to see why. A coming-of-age story set in the early 60s, the movie benefits from the glamour of that era, strong, charismatic performances, a simplistic, but appealing story and a sparkling screenplay, adapting Lynn Barber's memoirs, by author Nick Hornby. The end result is a movie that's charmingly old-fashioned, harping back to the kitchen sink dramas of 1960s British cinema, and which effortlessly draws you in.

The story is rather straightforward. Carey Mulligan plays Jenny, a seemingly worldly-wise and undoubtedly intelligent 16 year old girl who is studying hard to pass the entry examinations for Oxford, pushed on by her ambitious father (Alfred Molina). Then she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), nearly twice her age, charmingly seductive, who introduces her into a more exciting and glamorous world.

If you're a fan of Mad Men, there's a huge amount to enjoy here too. The period detailing, from the attitudes to the outfits, is fantastic. There's a real glamour throughout as Jenny is introduced to a more exciting world of jazz clubs and fine dining, of glamorous clothes and glamorous people, by David and his two friends, played by Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike. It'd spoil the movie to say too much, but the juxtaposition between this world and the more dowdy world of academia, represented by Jenny's teachers, in the shape of Emma Thompson and Olivia Williams, is pivotal.

The performances of the central players are what really ensure the success of the narrative. In the hands of lesser actors, the story could be sleazy or charmless, but Carey Mulligan is pitch perfect as Jenny, balancing wide-eyed enthusiasm and the naivety of her age with a flinty wisdom and determination and who pretty much carries the movie on her slim shoulders. Peter Sarsgaard could have played it sleazy, but he's brilliantly charming and non-threatening enough to make the audience understand why Jenny is drawn to him, but at the same time almost feral and sexually seductive. The two leads play off one another so well, it really sells the relationship as a relationship. Of course, the juxtaposition of how the period characters react to David's seduction of the young girl and how modern audiences will perceive it is part of what makes the film so interesting and has no doubt provoked much discussion.

The supporting cast is notable too. Dominic Cooper is wonderfully heavy-lidded and suave, personifying early sixties smoothness and Rosamund Pike puts in a turn as his trophy girlfriend with wide-eyed stupidity that never tips into cliché. Olivia Williams, Emma Thompson and Cara Seymour are given more thankless roles, but all perform them admirably, playing the less glamorous women in Jenny's life.

But, aside from the main players, it was Alfred Molina who stood out, playing Jenny's reclusive, narrow-minded father, who appears ambitious for her without considering her own feelings. He sells the hypocritical expectations of Jenny's father with a straight face, plays the overpowering and almost petulant adult to a tee, then portrays his more vulnerable, caring and fearful side equally strongly. It's a masterly performance.

The screenplay, as mentioned by Nick Hornby, is witty, romantic and wise and rather sad and he's well served by the cast, but it's a combination of cast and writing that make the film such a delight, along with tight and lush direction from Lone Scherfig. The film walks the fine line between being both nostalgic to the innocence and glamour of the period and biting on attitudes of the time, particularly the casual racism of many of the older characters.

There are flaws. Many may be unhappy with the conclusion of the film and the last 10 minutes does feel uncomfortably rushed. The central premise does sound creepy, which will no doubt put many off and the attitudes of the period are accurately expressed in a way that will no doubt have modern audiences shaking their heads, but it's actually a captivating story.

But for many, the accuracy of the attitudes of the period will, as with Mad Men, be one of the most appealing parts. Once that's drawn you in, the best way to describe the movie is "charming", both in performances and look, with Carey Mulligan wonderfully appealing as the young central female character who's both sympathetic and believable.

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July 2013


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