Fall is here, which means it's the best time of year for Oscar-bait films and - drumroll, please - foreign indie films! Woo-hoo! ;-) After Lori brought this movie to my attention several weeks ago, An Education FINALLY opened in my area today (have I mentioned lately how much I HATE limited release schedules?!). I wasn't sure what to expect from this film, exactly - after all, this May-December romance had the potential to end very badly for our heroine. But based on the cast, strong reviews, and the almost complete & utter lack of anything that I think is worthwhile actually paying to see in the theater,I knew this would be a must-see for me.
The verdict? I was incredibly impressed and thoroughly enjoyed this movie. Carey Mulligan, a Masterpiece veteran from productions ranging from Bleak House, Northanger Abbey, and My Boy Jackto one of the best Doctor Who episodes ever ("Blink"), wows with tour-de-force turn as Jenny. If she's not a serious contender for a Best Actress Oscar, I will be completely shocked & disappointed. I've enjoyed her past work, but this performance was a revelation - I didn't know she had it in her to so convincingly play an innocent yet incredibly saavy and worldly-wise teenager on the cusp of adulthood. Mulligan fits into the 1960s time period perfectly, and more than once channeled Audrey Hepburn quite convincingly with her delicate balance of innocence and maturity.
Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour (I totally didn't recognize Seymour from her turn as Gillian in You've Got Mail until I looked her up on the IMDB) are perfectly cast as Jenny's parents. Molina especially was fantastic in this movie - he was funny and sincere and touching, all rolled into one. Jenny's parents are an interesting couple to watch - kind of caught in the middle of the traditions of their parents and the feminist movement - they push Jenny to meet her potential, create a future for herself by going to college - but it's a future that will be easily set aside the second suitable husband material comes along. I wouldn't be at all displeased to see Molina get a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his performance in An Education - he had this tendancy to steal his scenes. :)
Peter Sarsgaard plays David, the December to Jenny's May, and oh is he a smooth operator. He positively oozes charm and it's easy to see why Jenny would fall for him. And when he plays her parents - those scenes were priceless! I thought the evolution of his performance was interesting to watch - he begins so smoothly, so confidently, and then that confidence begins to crack a bit as he realizes he doesn't want to let Jenny go. Only when a certain secret comes to light does the worldly facade crumble and you see David as he truly is - a shallow, selfish little boy who never quite grew up character-wise.
Also worth mentioning are the other two members of David's "fast" set - Helen, played by the always lovely Rosamund Pike (a.k.a. Jane Bennet in Pride and Prejudice2005), and Danny played by the brooding, dangerous-looking Dominic Cooper (a.k.a. Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility 2008). Pike fits this era perfectly - the clothes, the mannerisms, are all pitch-perfect. I had no idea she could play vapid and empty-headed so well, or come across as so funny! Likewise Cooper fit the role of David's friend and co-conspirator well. This wasn't a role that really stretched his repetoire IMO, but I like him well enough and I have to say, he looked good in the suits. ;-) I should also probably call out Emma Thompson and Olivia Williams' appearances. If this movie is any indication Thompson is a lock to play Margaret Thatcher in any upcoming biopics. ;-) While I have to call Thompson out because she's one of my favorite actresses, Olivia Williams definitely plays the more interesting and critical role in my view. If you look at her IMDB page, she's had quite a varied career, but I have to say that her turn as Jenny's teacher is one of her most striking and memorable. She's definitely channeling "average" here - and it's interesting to see how driven she is, perhaps because she hopes to see some of her unfulfilled dreams live out in her most capable pupil? Thoughts to ponder...
I HAVE to mention the look of the film - the sets and costumes are simply gorgeous! Each frame of film is chock-full of glorious period detail and authenticity. The scenes in Paris, where Jenny sports the fantastic gown seen in the above poster, are like something straight out of Roman Holiday or Sabrina. Those associations only reinforce any Audrey Hepburn/Cary Mulligan comparisons too. And the music - the music was just fantastic. I love it in period dramas like this when the music, whether it's score or songs, is an ideal partner to the action on-screen. The songs - from classics by Mel Torme and Brenda Lee to new recordings by Beth Rowley and Melody Gardot - are sublime. The whole pop/jazz sound of the movie is tailor-made to appeal to my musical sensibilities (Thank you, smart filmmakers! LOL!).
Jenny's story is actually told quite powerfully, and the hope in this story is an element I wasn't quite expecting. Let's face it, Jenny's "education" by the much older David could have ended very badly for her. But she's a girl who doesn't have it in her to simply give up and accept a situation. She's blessed with really supportive, very understanding parents, but what I liked best was how she had to choose to pull herself up by the bootstraps, so to speak, and to use the time she spent with David & his friends to make her stronger. Things could have ended very unpleasantly, or bitterly, but Jenny is a character who makes the conscious choice to learn from all experiences and mistakes - and while that certainly doesn't negate the pain the life throws one's way, it just struck me as a great reminder of the power of choice.
Just a note on the rating - for a coming-of-age film made in today's Hollywood, I thought An Education showed some surprising restraint as far as the intimate side of Jenny and David's relationship goes (a fact I appreciated - you know what happens, but this isn't a gratuitous or exploitive film in that regard).
An Education is a smartly scripted, fast-paced, funny, heart-wrenching, thought-provoking little film - I'm so glad I FINALLY got the chance to check it out.