After playing at Sundance at the beginning of the year and every film festival henceforth, gushing about Lone Scherfig's An Education seems irrelevant and faint. But this is a tremendous film and in such a strong year for women filmmakers around the world, the Danish dame Scherfig has made a calculated and sophisticated work set in the burgeoning era when women were beginning to question their cultural boundaries.
It's such a quaint and classy film, jazzy and fashionable, funny and truthful. Carey Mulligan plays the 16-year old Jenny, caught between a life of studies and monotony or romance and maturity when she meets a cheeky and personable rich middle-age adventurer and globe-trotter named David (Peter Sarsgaard).
Unsatisfied with the norm and expectation of attending a university, Jenny sees the staleness and lack of opportunities for women in 1960's suburban London and falls impulsively head-over-heels for David's charm and sophistication.
As a lover of French cinema and music, and compassionately fed up with the stereotypical lifestyle of the 60's well-educated woman, Jenny becomes attracted to not only David, but the escapism and against-the-system appeal of marrying a rich, attractive playboy. She sees herself in her English teacher, an equally smart and book-savvy Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams), and describes her life after graduation from Cambridge as a walking death.
"Action builds character", says Jenny to David in his swooning dark red sportscar, and she's completely right -- in another sense.
The entire cast could be described with whatever remarkable superlative you want to throw at it. Mulligan is a revelation, a breakthrough role and a surefire Best Actress nomination will be the result, that much is certain. Alfred Molina as the unsuspecting, well-intending father is brilliant, as well as Emma Thompson as the school headmaster, but her few scenes shouldn't be enough to warrant or gain any serious awards traction. I'm stunned that Peter Sarsgaard, as the gaudy yet sweetly puppy-eyed David, hasn't been more seriously considered for his work.
I also can't go without mentioning the luscious, cafe cozy photography of John de Borman -- giving An Education a pleasurable, but identifiable personality.
An Education is as thorough a coming-of-age drama as you're likely to find, and with its 1962 setting (not unlike AMC's similarly themed "Mad Men") it portrays an era in the midst of a cultural revolution, whether the characters know it or not. Come to think of it, Jenny is not unlike Peggy Olsen, played by Elisabeth Moss on "Mad Men". At the end of the day, both women are modern counter-culture thinkers stuck in an unprogressive age. This film could represent the last story of that era, and it's beautifully conceived.