Weekly meditations from your humble messenger

About A Girl
(An Education, 11/23/09)
By Nicholas Nicastro

If there's a better British example of a career-making role than that given to young Carey Mulligan in An Education, you'd probably have to go back to Alfie in 1966, which made a star out of a Cockney bloke named Michael Caine. Indeed, Alfie is set just after the time portrayed in An Education, at the dawn of a sexual revolution fostered by practical contraception and that ended (with a decisive slam) with AIDS. Jenny, the teenaged character played by Mulligan, doesn't exactly get around like Alfie does, but it is—as they say—different for girls. But she's every bit as delightful as her predecessor.
      The clever, attractive Jenny is the only daughter in a family of modest means living in the colorless outskirts of the capital. Her father (Alfred Molina) wants her to go to Oxford (but, strangely, not Cambridge)—an ambition she has embraced and has every likelihood of reaching. She has every likelihood, that is, until she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), a fellow ten years older who has a nice car and lots of connections in the swankiest corners of swinging London. With his deep pockets and fine manners, David gives Jenny another sort of education in what he calls "the university of life." Jenny, who has bohemian pretensions, is naturally smitten, But of course, David has secrets.
      Granted, a short summary of the story—based a memoir by Lynn Barber—doesn't suggest there's much new in a film whose prospects are hardly brightened by its blah title. True, screenwriter Nick Hornby (About A Boy) and Danish director Lone Schefig hardly strike an inauthentic moment, and Sarsgaard can't be faulted for his portrayal of a subtly brutal cad. Alas, there's no kind of drabness quite like the British middle-class kind, with its council houses and pro forma politeness and compulsory tea breaks. (Those who have faced watching a stack of Ken Loach films know what I'm talking about.)
      All of this plainness works perfectly here, however, because it's like the simple black frame around a winning portrait by Mulligan. Until now, she's been known primarily for a few small roles in costumiers like the 2005 BBC version of Bleak House and the Keira Knightley Pride and Prejudice. This is certain to change. As the alternately wise and foolish Jenny, she's like what all of us imagine when envisioning any of the classic British literary heroines. Mulligan has the kind of face that seems to embody all the best aspects of every stage of life, from the promise of youth to—with that wry mouth—the knowing bemusement of age. The little of bit of unfairness at the root of the story, that beauty (and more specifically, female beauty) can alone invite entrée into whole worlds of experience is glaringly obvious here, but watching her, we can't manage to object. Can Mulligan as Jane Eyre, or Mulligan as anybody by Jane Austen, be far away?

©2009 Nicholas Nicastro

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