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Another Movie Smart, With Heart : "An Education"


Is there a better writer for the screen than Nick Hornby? Yes I said for the screen. I don't mean to step on toes, but I've not been mesmerized by Hornby's prose on the page. I've not actually made it through any of his novels (I don't think).  But as stories, and for my taste as movies, High Fidelity and About a Boy are two of the best films of the past decade and not just as comedies; they're both bloody works of art. I'll take either over Inception because in ten years when High Fidelity's on TV you'll stay and watch.

By luck or design, I'm not sure which, the producers of An Education got Hornby (or did Hornby get the producers?) to turn a memoir written for Granta Magazine, about a 16 going-on 17-year-old girl who has been studying so hard to fulfill her (and her father's) dream of going to Oxford until she has a relationship with a much older man in early 1960s England, into one of the best movies of last year. 

An Education is, as my brother-in-law Dan might cheekily put it, the feel-good pedophilia movie of the year. The feel-good pedophilia movie of the year that was nominated for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actress for Carey Mulligan, the film's star. This is a movie that blurs lines and confuses the audience at every turn. Whose right and who is evil? Who is wise and who is the fool? In terms of genre as well the movie is a head trip. Just as Hornby managed with About a Boy, a film marketed and likely remembered and referred to as a comedy but that contains a harrowing suicide attempt by a depressive character  who the movie treats sincerely and with sympathy (as opposed to Meet the Parents ridiculously), with An Education we have a movie that can get pretty damned uncomfortable it is so real and yet one that can also be very funny; or vice versa. And all the time it is so full of the joys of the style of its era.

Of course to pull off this kind of genre-blurring complexity means you need layered characters that require the best actors and An Education is a real ensemble. With Peter Sarsgaard, the chameleon I recently wrote about as the lead, you are assured of at least one character to find infinitely interesting to watch.Many a Hollywood actor (if not all) can do charming, but how many can play charming and creepy at the same time, and I don't mean Norman Bates charming - I mean genuine charm and likeability. Put him next to Mulligan, the film's true star, who plays the sometimes wise-beyond-her-years school girl to a tee - 16 one minute, 35 the next - and you get true chemistry, and some of the most uncomfortable and honest bedroom moments I've ever seen put on film. Not in a disturbing Little Children way so much as an icky, American Beauty ooh, I'm not sure how to feel sort.

That brings me to the tone of the film, which is 180 degrees from American Beauty's stodgy, overly composed scenes. The Danish director, Lone Scherfig, does something magical with An Education. From Hornby's script, she manages to keep the film light and yet give it weight. This is, I realize, a total contradiction and yet watch the movie and you'll see what I mean. That lightness is what makes An Education a seemingly small movie, especially in terms of its scope and dramatic conflict (it is, in truth, a coming-of-age story), and yet it - one scene in particular - brings me to tears every time I see it (thrice).

But back to that cast. Alfred Molina (speaking of that scene), as the girl's father, might very well steal the movie from a cast that includes Emma Thomson as bitch extraordinaire and Olivia Williams (Rushmore), who breaks your heart with her earnest performance. The gorgeous blond Helen is played with such hilarious idiocy that you aren't surprised to learn that the "dumb blond" actress who plays her, Rosamund Pike, is in real life an accomplished cellist who studied English at Oxford. But Molina! He is nothing short of real and yet hilarious as the clueless but ever loving father. Then again, I'm always a sucker for father/child relationships [see Monsoon Wedding] and Molina's father character is so dumb and so sweet and naive and fragile as the dad. You gotta love him.

You gotta love An Education.

It's not big budget. It's not cut and dry good guys and bad guys. It's just so human. And it looks so good, and with great soundtrack to boot. Now if only I could get that Juliette Greco song from the movie onto my playlist...