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Dangerous liaison

Movies | An Education teaches us to look beyond charm

Issue: "Ghost streets," Feb. 27, 2010

"One reason why evil is so powerful," wrote David Foster Wallace in an essay on movies, "is that it's hideously vital and robust and usually impossible to look away from." Director Lone Scherfig makes the point more delicately in her troubling new movie, An Education. It's about a smartalecky English schoolgirl named Jenny (Carey Mulligan) living in Twickenham in 1961, when she meets a suave charmer in his twenties named David (Peter Saarsgard).

David is everything her parents are not-ethnically exotic (he's Jewish), urbane, witty, and oozing humble sophistication. And, despite being probably 10 years older than she, he seems deeply interested. For a charmed 17-year-old, David seems too good to be true ("Do you go to concerts?" he asks Jenny. "No," she replies. "We don't believe in concerts." "Oh, I assure you, they're real.")

Like most 17-year-olds, Jenny is convinced that real life begins when you escape your hometown. Looking around her, it's hard to disagree-Jenny's overbearing father (Alfred Molina), her stern headmistress (Emma Thompson), and her underwhelming boyfriend-hopeful all seem to point to a boring future. And of course, just across the channel there's all kinds of intellectual and artistic activity. David promises to give Jenny all of these things, and more.

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Of course, David is too good to be true. From the moment he invites Jenny to come into his car to get out of the rain, director Lone Scherfig is telling us that there's more going on with him than meets the eye, and it's not good. This is one of few movies I've ever seen that is honestly rated PG-13 "for mature themes," but the fact that sex takes place offscreen doesn't make the seduction any less disturbing.

Ultimately, though, Jenny grows up not because she breaks rules and learns the things the squares don't want her to know, but because she learns from her mistakes and discovers that some of the boring people may know something. It's not a Parisian philosopher but Jenny's smart, worried teacher Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams) who gives her the movie's best and harshest truth: "Action is character."

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