In this coming-of-age movie, 16-year-old Jenny (Carey Mulligan) receives quite an education—in academics, sex, music and fine living. She owes most of this to her much older lover, David (Peter Sarsgaard), whom she meets one day in the rain when he offers to shelter her cello, if not her, in his car.
Soon, she and David are devising ways to convince her parents to let her go out with him to dinners, dancing and even Paris (there’s a romantic Parisian montage which made me ache to go). Her stellar school grades plummet and her goals of attending Oxford begin to recede. Like David, it seems Jenny would rather attend the “University of Life,” much to the chagrin of her teachers. Her glamorous experience abruptly ends, however, after an upsetting discovery, forcing her to re-examine what kind of education she really wants.
You may or may not have heard of Mulligan (she played Kitty Bennet in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley) but I believe she will be well known here in the States very soon. The 24-year-old actress believably conveys the giddiness and innocence of a 16-year-old, then blossoms before our very eyes into a sophisticated young woman—with her plummy voice and gazelle legs—who learns a lesson she won’t forget. The movie is based on the life of British journalist Lynn Barber, who wrote an article about her rude awakening.
I found the casting of Sarsgaard a bit problematic. While I think he’s an extremely talented actor who does good work here, he brings with him cinematic baggage from often playing edgy/smarmy guys who can’t be trusted. David is supposed to be a suave and classy gentleman who not only seduces Jenny, he charms her parents into practically pushing their daughter into his arms. Knowing Sarsgaard doesn’t do the straight-up, nice-guy thing, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop and when it does, the impact is muted.
Among the stellar supporting cast, Alfred Molina stands out as Jenny’s blustery father, who at first pressures his daughter to strive for Oxford but then thinks maybe a rich man would be better for her future. Despite the character’s temper, Molina makes him sympathetic, a father who simply wants to assure his daughter’s well-being in an age where professional options for women were limited. Olivia Williams turns in a subtle yet effective performance as Jenny’s teacher, a “spinster” whom Jenny eventually sees in a different light. Rosamund Pike, known for playing classy or icy smart women, displays her comedic chops as a dim-witted blonde who often parties with Jenny and David and her own boyfriend, Danny (Dominic Cooper).
Danish director Lone Scherfig, in her American feature debut, does a nice job guiding the actors to strong performances, which is crucial in a film that’s more character study than plot-driven. Novelist Nick Hornby wrote the screenplay, peppering it with his usual humor and smart dialogue, and consulted on the music, which is 1960s groovy.
Scherfig, Sarsgaard, Mulligan, Cooper and Williams showed up to do Q & A at the Variety screening I attended. Random tidbits gleaned from the session:
- Sarsgaard is handsome and personable in real life, not creepy at all.
- Mulligan is sporting a chic pixie cut and will use an American accent for her role as Gordon Gekko’s daughter, Winnie, in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps, currently shooting in NY. She’s more sophisticated in person than in Education, speaking in a lower register and showing no signs of Jenny’s gigglyness.
- Cooper, whose on-screen presence has never made any impression on me, was hilarious in person. He had a funny answer to everything and was very flirtatious without being obnoxious.
- Scherfig is a smart, fascinating woman. She said the people she’s inspired by are completely different from the people who influence her work. Example: She gets a lot of advice from Lars von Trier (Antichrist) and admires him but would never try to do anything resembling his work.
- Williams identified with her role as Jenny’s teacher in the film because she’s a grammar nerd. (Love that!) She said the crew on her current Fox series, Dollhouse, is constantly teasing her for picking out split infinitives and dangling prepositions in the scripts.
Nerd verdict: A worthwhile Education
All photos by Kerry Brown, courtesy Sony Pictures Classics