An Education

Time Out New York Project: Issue #732, October 8-14, 2009


Dir. Lone Scherfig. 2009. PG-13. 95mins. Peter Sarsgaard, Carey Mulligan, Alfred Molina.

Actor Carey Mulligan is filmed like a goddess in An Education. In looks and demeanor, she seems caught between prim elegance and outlaw modishness, appropriately suggesting—in light of the story’s period setting—a ’60s-era Audrey Hepburn. This starlet’s performance is the best reason to see an otherwise jumbled adaptation of Lynn Barber’s memoir, in which Mulligan’s disaffected British teen, Jenny, has a transformative adolescent experience. 

Jenny’s life is a predictable succession of prep-school testing, youth orchestra and parental protestations, until the fateful day when a handsome stranger offers her a lift during a downpour. He’s David (Sarsgaard), a man nearly twice her age, who pours on the charm with all the irresistible come-hitherness of a Tex Avery wolf. 

But he’s still a wolf: Fancy dinners and impromptu trips to Paris are the norm, yet there’s something off about David, a creepiness underlying his seeming perfection. Sarsgaard is expert at implied malevolence, though he’s less convincing as a refined man of the world (he’s one of the few performers now working who can be both perfectly cast and miscast). 

The bigger problem is the way in which this cautionary coming-of-age tale is told. Lone Scherfig directs it all as if it were a breezy lark, so a third-act tonal shift makes for an incongruous, excessively moralistic fit with everything that’s preceded. Most insulting, though, is the way in which the climactic passages miraculously tidy up every frayed edge of Jenny’s life. Who knew that an Oxford education had the healing power of Lourdes?—Keith Uhlich