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Love Is a Many-Spoiled Thing

An Education (2009)

Kerry Brown/Sony Pictures Classics

The tenderness of Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig’s “An Education” is positively overpowering, to a degree that even underage-cavorting is easy to forgive — thematically, of course. For her 17th birthday, wise-beyond-her-years schoolgirl Jenny (played magnificently by newcomer Carey Mulligan) is taken to Paris by the much older David (Peter Saarsgard at his best). Full of worldly charm and sophistication, David represents all that Jenny strives for. Thus, resisting his persistent courtship is all the more difficult. In Paris, she succumbs to his gentleman's flirtation, and the scene — set in a small yet plush hotel room — is sublime. So sweet, that when the narrative butterflies cease to fly and reality sets in, the sight of what’s essentially uncomfortable cradle-rocking achieves the desirability of an enviable romance. By this point into the film, the simplistic beauty of “An Education” has reached the point of no return. An irresistible one-way ticket, it is.

Based on a memoir by journalist Lynn Barber, “An Education” is as classy as it is accessible, a coming-of-age Cinderella story set in fancy-pants London circa 1961. With a dynamite smile and more command than actresses double her age, Ms. Mulligan carries the film on her slender shoulders in a breakthrough performance that’s already being pegging her as 2009’s Ellen Page. Only, Ms. Mulligan’s turn here surpasses that of the talented Academy Award-nominated “Juno” star. By design of her character (courtesy of Nick Hornby’s assured script), Mr. Mulligan’s slick nuance is a womanly revelation; discontent with the limitations of her teen years, her character wants to maintain an adult-like demeanor around David, yet she can’t help but greet the extravagance he’s accustomed to with uncontrollably wide eyes. David and his art-loving, caviar-munching friends play completely out of her league, and Jenny wouldn’t have it any other way — which gives the heartbreak she endures during the film’s late-game twist a devastating punch. As if Floyd Mayweather Jr. snuck in one final right-handed uppercut after the bell has rung.

If there’s ever a major studio looking to morph an uppity Jane Austen adaptation into a teen-friendly hit, they’d be wise to call upon Ms. Scherfig. Backed by Mr. Hornby’s screenplay, Ms. Scherfig dials a tone that’s never pretentious, even in its highest levels of maturity. Not many other films that cater to the sentiments of high school coeds do so with dialogue as eloquent as that of “An Education.” Jenny’s superficial father — a tough-loving patriarch fleshed out with endearment by Alfred Molina — challenges her dreams of earning a living as an author with “Becoming [a financially successful novelist] isn’t the same as knowing one.” The line breezes along inconspicuously, defied moments later by Jenny’s beaming grin in David’s presence, a happiness not unlike the smitten nature of Rachel Leigh Cook under the influence of Freddie Prinze Jr. in 1999’s “She’s All That.” Try that comparison on for size, Academy (no offense, Ms. Scherfig); although a parallel to the fittingly-titled “Not Another Teen Movie” would better serve this delightful film.


Opens on Oct. 9 in New York and Los Angeles and on Oct. 30 in Britain.

Directed by Lone Scherfig; written by Nick Hornby, based on a memoir by Lynn Barber; director of photography, John de Borman; edited by Barney Pilling; music by Paul Englishby; production designer, Andrew McAlpine; produced by Finola Dwyer and Amanda Posey; released by Sony Pictures Classics (United States) and E1 Entertainment (Britain). Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes. This film is rated PG-13 by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Carey Mulligan (Jenny), Peter Sarsgaard (David), Dominic Cooper (Danny), Rosamund Pike (Helen), Alfred Molina (Jack), Cara Seymour (Marjorie), Matthew Beard (Graham), Emma Thompson (Headmistress), Olivia Williams (Miss Stubbs), Sally Hawkins (Sarah), Amanda Fairbank-Hynes (Hattie) and Ellie Kendrick (Tina).


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