Sony // 2009 // 100 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // March 30th, 2010
A film that sparkles with the wit, charm and styles of 1960s Britain.
"If people die the moment they graduate, then surely it's the things we do beforehand that count?"
Jenny (Carey Mulligan, Public Enemies) is an incredibly bright 16-year-old girl who is on the path to graduating with honors and moving on to an Oxford education. However, it's the 1960s, and Jenny is frustrated by the idea that such an esteemed education will lead to very little for a woman. One day, she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard, Jarhead), a 30-something Jewish man with a lot of money and even more charm. Jenny knows that getting involved with a man twice her age probably isn't the wisest thing to do, but what he has to offer her is too exciting to pass up: a chance to experience some real excitement in life. She goes to fine restaurants, listens to all sorts of new music, and gets to experience a generous dose of luxury and culture. But where is all this leading and what will it mean for her previous plans?
An Education may not have been the very best film of 2009, but there was none that so effectively captured my heart as this one. In its own unique way, this is a film that strikes some of the same chords as Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous, another immensely moving portrait of a bright young teenager who lived some of the most exhilarating days of their life just before having their heart broken. It is no surprise that the relationship between David and Jenny does not end on a particularly happy note; most viewers will sense something unfortunate coming from the moment Jenny decides to plunge into the relationship. Even after the fact, realizing that she had been foolish and made mistakes, would Jenny trade the experiences she gained if she had the chance to do it all over again? I sincerely doubt it. She received an education in life, an intoxicating and exciting one that left her with a terrible hangover.
Many people have viewed Jenny as a target: she's the sheep and David is the wolf. To a certain extent, that is true, as David is most assuredly taking advantage of her. Even so, it should also be noted that Jenny is simultaneously taking advantage of David. Their relationship is a mutually beneficial one: she exploits his money and affection for the sake of being able to experience all of these exciting new things, he exploits her cultural yearnings for the sake of being able to seduce her. Don't get me wrong, the relationship is not an entirely artificial one. David and Jenny do have some genuine affection for each other, but in the back of their minds they each know that there are selfish motivations involved.
It is important to know that Jenny comes from a very conservative household with parents that keep a watchful eye on most everything she does. Her father (Alfred Molina, Spider-Man 2) wants nothing more than for her to have great success in the field of education, and he tends to be dismissive of any notions she may have about getting involved in fun extracurricular activities (much less a romantic relationship). Even so, David's charms seemingly know no bounds: he courts Jenny's parents with the same knowing subtlety that he won Jenny over with. When he tells her parents that he wants to take Jenny on a weekend trip with himself and his Aunt Helen, the parents are so fond of this fellow that they never question whether an Aunt Helen actually exists.
There's another important element that I've neglected to reflect thus far in this review: the film's incredible sense of joy. The opening credits begin with Floyd Cramer's absurdly catchy instrumental "On the Rebound," which sets the tone for the following hour or so of giddy delight. The film is warm, witty and loaded with scenes that just sparkle with life, often becoming so much fun that it becomes very easy to dismiss the troubling elements that are sitting there in broad daylight.
However, the primary reason for this sense of joy is found in the film's central performance. Carey Mulligan is, to put it rather conventionally, a revelation in this role. The actress has done solid work in a number of small parts before this one, but this is the sort of performance that absolutely convinces you she deserves to be a star. Her enthusiasm and radiance seemingly know no bounds; the gleeful excitement paired with razor-sharp intelligence is a combination that proves absolutely irresistible. Not only does the performance allow us to relate to the character's enthusiasm during the first half of the film, it also enhances the heartbreaking nature of the second half. Nothing against Sandra Bullock's performance in The Blind Side, but this is the performance that deserved an Oscar.
An Education is also blessed with a remarkable supporting cast, uniformly excellent from top to bottom. Sarsgaard brings an unexpected level of dimension to a character that might have come off as little more than a lusty creep in the hands of a lesser actor. Alfred Molina gets many of the film's biggest laughs with his shamelessly transparent lines of dialogue ("Knowing a famous author is better than becoming one. It shows you're connected"), while Cara Seymour (The Savages) provides him with crucial, understated support. Emma Thompson (Sense and Sensibility) and Olivia Williams (Dollhouse) both make a strong impression in small but crucial roles, while Dominic Cooper (The Duchess) and Rosamund Pike (Pride and Prejudice) are very good as David's friends. Pike in particular gets a chance to strike some new notes, playing an atypically ditzy character to great effect.
The film gets a very solid Blu-ray transfer, not a standard-setting disc by any means but a perfectly acceptable one. That the image is a bit dour and cold at times has as much to do with the artistic choices being made as it does with the actual transfer. Aside from a handful of moments that seem a bit soft, detail is quite strong throughout, while blacks are deep and rich. Flesh tones are a bit wobbly, but not too distractingly so. In terms of audio, there are only a few scenes that are really ambitious from that side of things but the whole track is quite good. The music comes through with strength and clarity, dialogue remains pristine throughout and the understated sound design is well-distributed. It's a very good track, even if the film doesn't exactly demand one. Supplements include a very casual audio commentary with Mulligan, Sarsgaard and Director Lone Scherfig, a 9-minute EPK-style making-of featurette, an 8-minute look at the stars "Walking the Red Carpet" at the film's premiere, a batch of deleted scenes and a theatrical trailer.
From the terrific Nick Hornsby screenplay to the spot-on performances to the snappy direction, An Education is a very fine film that works well on pretty much every level. Highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes