Monday, December 7, 2009

I Have Been Educated

I love the movies because every once in a long while, I come across one as wonderful as An Education. 

There is no one trait to zero in on when discussing the film. Why is the film great? Because it is. There are certain movies that find the perfect story, the perfect director, the perfect actors, and the perfect tone. An Education is one of those movies. It is, very simply, the perfect cinematic synthesis at the perfect time.

Nick Hornby has been a modern master of the witty, human, relatable written word for years and years, and his works have contributed some of the culture's best films of the last decade, from High Fidelity to About a Boy. The one subject he has never tackled: womanhood. The intricacies of femaledom abound, so it is often a smart choice for most male scribes to avoid it. But Hornby dares to paint a picture of youth flirting with adulthood, of intelligence flirting with stupidity, and most boldly, of feminism flirting with gender subjugation, and his gamble pays remarkable dividends. 

Granted, Hornby is working from a female memoir -- yes, for the first time in his career, Hornby is adapting someone else's work for the screen rather than another writer adapting Hornby's work for the screen. The switch feels fresh and intriguing, like Hornby is testing the waters of a new phase. Here the celebrated writer graces real-life material with his own unmistakable touches to create a filmic story that reverberates like the best cinematic fiction -- we feel the heartbeats of humanity flickering before us in all their funny, dramatic, vibrant splendor.

The advanced buzz on Carey Mulligan's breakout performance as Jenny, a very bright 1960s London high schooler who enters with both eyes open into a relationship with a much older man, was perfectly accurate -- Mulligan is a standout among a hugely talented cast, and a screen presence that sets the screen on fire with her mixture of world-weary innocence and knowing intelligence. As the much older man, Peter Sarsgaard is, once again, fabulous, playing a role that could easily become a sleazy caricature, but imbuing his character with real fears, dreams, and emotions. As Jenny's parents, Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour strike a perfect balance between overbearing father and warm, accepting mother. For Molina's stern, painful, but oftentimes humorous work, he will be in contention for an Oscar nod...and Mulligan is a shoo-in.

Lone Scherfig, a Danish filmmaker whose previous films -- among them Italian for Beginners and Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself -- touched on the wonders of humanity much in the same way Hornby's writing does. She is a perfect fit for this story (marking her first English-language picture), which takes blends familiar frameworks (the period piece and the "young girl having affair with older man") but breathes new life into them by grappling with real issues and studying humanity in all its ups, downs, and everything in between. What makes a real woman? What makes a real man? What makes a real feminist? What constitutes a real "education"? We all know the answers, and none of us know the real answers...An Education is brilliant for understanding that simple fact.

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