To sir with lust

A killer cast and a Nick Hornby credit lifts this Pygmalion-y twist

The most surprising thing this latest film from director Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners) is newcomer Carey Mulligan's wonderful performance as the teenage incarnation of best-selling memoirist Lynn Barber. That's both compliment and criticism.

Mulligan delivers the kind of breakout performance that makes critics swoon and puts her on year-end best-of lists (and the Oscar shortlist). When the slender young actress puts up her hair, she evokes instant comparisons to Audrey Hepburn, and when she lets the tears flow you never doubt her teen yearnings. Of course, it's a little disappointing to learn that the actress is 24 years old and not the 16 of her character. Nevertheless, it's a luminous debut and promises much for Mulligan's acting future.

Of course, it helps that An Education brings with it all sorts of cinematic pedigree — from the deceptive restraint and snappy wit of the screenplay by Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy) to the wonderful supporting cast to period details that are effective but never overwhelming, this coming-of-age tale will attract many viewers.

Where An Education completely fails to surprise, however, is in its narrative and direction, both of which telegraph an outcome we can practically recite from memory.

It's the early 1960s, and bright, beautiful Jenny (Mulligan) is so far ahead of her peers in both smarts and savvy there's little doubt she'll be on the forefront of the budding feminist movement. Along comes older, Jaguar-driving David (Peter Sarsgaard), who gently sweeps the 16-year-old off her feet and introduces her to a world of continental delights and boho grooviness. Her parents (including the magnificently baffled Alfred Molina) are similarly seduced by David's charisma and culture, thwarting all expectations of sexual propriety. Romance blooms, grades slip, and soon the promise of an Oxford education is in jeopardy. Plus there are hints that David isn't quite Prince Charming. And, of course, he isn't.

Scherfig's direction is so obvious and breezy that not only does An Education's third act shift clumsily into moralistic storytelling, we're never allowed to believe that David is anything other than the cad he is eventually revealed to be. Instead of letting Sarsgaard's charms seduce the audience, the director constantly clues us in about what's really going on. Sarsgaard valiantly tries to counter the film's ham-fisted direction by giving David an almost childlike innocence and delight in both his fancy-free lifestyle and lovely young girlfriend. But Scherfig loads the dice against him, and we wait for the other shoe to drop from the start.

Jenny, on the other hand, is portrayed as so defiantly capable and emotionally decent that, when her teenage fantasy of romance finally disintegrates, there's no real sense of long-lasting fallout. Most such stories bring with them a sense of earned just deserts. The teen, petulant in the certainty of her choices, ends up learning the hard-knock lessons of life. But Jenny's so perfectly likable and earnest it's impossible to wish her harm. And so even after a wonderfully written confrontation with her small-minded headmistress (Emma Thompson in a terrifically nasty cameo) suggests that David's deception may undermine her future plans, Jenny's woes are too-easily remedied, finishing the film off with an awkward, self-satisfied coda.

Still, all these shortcomings merely keep a good movie from being great. An Education boasts an embarrassment of acting riches and the kind of smart and funny writing that has earned Hornby the accolades. It's just too bad that, much like Jenny's teachers and parents, neither he nor director Scherfig knew what to do with such a precocious and vivacious young woman.

Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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