MVFF: An Education (B-)

Coincidentally (?) we saw An Education here in Mill Valley on the same night it opened in New York and Los Angeles. I was surprised that the director, Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners and Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself — both great) was here and not at one of those major cities. But thank goodness she was, because her Q&A made me appreciate a lot more about this film. Unfortunately, others won’t have the benefit of hearing her insights. The early buzz on this film is hot, and by giving it a B- I’ll probably be in the minority.(I just read A.O. “Tony” Scott’s review in the NY Times. He loved it. Don’t read his review, as usual, unless you want to know most of the plot.)

Technically, it’s a coming-of-age film, but with a darker-than-usual twist. Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a 16 year-old girl in London in the 1960s. David (Peter Sarsgaard) is the sleazy older man who pursues her. It takes a long time for us to understand just why David is sleazy, but we sense from the beginning that something isn’t right. The problem is that there’s no benefit to us, the audience, from waiting to learn what’s up. We just have to wait.

Mulligan is suddenly the new It girl, and she deserves the attention she’s getting for this role. She is terrific. This is actually her first major role, having made this film two years ago when she was 22. But the rest of the film isn’t at the level of her performance. Sarsgaard is just his usual placid self. Alfred Molina, playing Jenny’s father, is at first a buffoonish stereotype whom we later have trouble accepting as warm and sincere when the plot takes a turn. The music and editing are awkward. Cinematography just mediocre.

The film will get a lot of attention due to Mulligan’s great performance, and luckily she’s on screen in virtually every scene, but this is one that the more I think about it, the less I like it. I keep thinking of all the ways in which it could have been better. I loved Sherfig’s earlier films, so I have hope for her future. Maybe it’s because this is her first in English. Maybe it’s the larger budget. (Italian for Beginners was a dirt-cheap Dogme 95 film.) Let’s see what the audiences say. I’m expecting to take some flak for this one.

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