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On Movies: 'An Education' ranks among the year's best

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 13, 2009 - David (Peter Sarsgaard) is bright, handsome, charming, stylish and seemingly rich. To 16-year-old Jenny (Carey Mulligan), he seems too good to be true. Which, of course, he is. For one thing, he is twice Jenny's age.

But Jenny, smart, pretty and intellectually restless, is desperate to escape the narrow confines of her small, middle-class house in suburban London and her strict girls' school nearby. When David appears in his curvy Bristol automobile, offering her an entree into a world of sports cars, fancy-dress concerts and elegant restaurants, Jenny doesn't ask too many questions. Neither, surprisingly, do her parents, particularly her father (Alfred Molina).

"The Education," one of the best movies of the year, funny and sad and revelatory, is set in 1961, a time when young women looked around them and saw a world of limited choices. Jenny's father sees marriage to a clever and successful older man as a perfectly fine alternative to attending Oxford University and trying to find a career in a male-dominated society.

In a sense, David seduces Jenny's father before he seduces Jenny herself. Early in the film, David, in classic con-man fashion, lures the socially insecure father into practically begging David to take his daughter to Oxford for the weekend, theoretically to schmooze with the faculty and improve her chances of admission. The scene is priceless, sharply satirical and both funny and emotionally jarring, illustrating the point made by the great social critic W. C. Fields - "You Can't Cheat an Honest Man."

Jenny's mother (Cara Seymour) is more suspicious of David's intentions than is her father, but she even reluctantly comes around when Jenny, shortly after her 17th birthday, comes home wearing David's engagement ring. Dazzling Jenny and her parents with his casual banter full of references to books, music, the West End of London and the Left Bank of Paris, David sweeps all three of them off their feet, leaving them in a position where a fall is all but inevitable.

The marvelous script by Nick Hornby ("High Fidelity") has a deceptively light tone most of the way through, but can evoke a gasp with an abrupt reversal of tone from engaging to nasty. The fluid direction by Lone Sherfig ("Italian for Beginners") shows a fine eye for significant details. Hornby and Sherfig drop little clues to David's true personality along the way, but the clues almost pass unnoticed until later developments underline their importance. (Warning to young women: If a grown man starts to call you "Minnie," as in "Minnie Mouse," and wants you to call him "Bubble-Up," flee immediately.)

The acting is excellent throughout. Emma Thompson is chilling in a small but crucial role as the headmistress at Jenny's school and Molina's performance as the father is a triumph. You can read volumes in his quick, childishly delighted smiles of pride, in his moments of brow-creased perplexity, and in his clumsy progress through social situations he does not fully comprehend.

"An Education," which might be subtitled "Pollyanna Meets Peter Pan," is based on a memoir by English journalist Lynn Barber, who more or less lived through the events dramatized. Among other things, she seems to be settling a few scores, particularly with her father. Barber is known for tough interviews with celebrities that often result in negative stories. It seems both ironic and understandable that a young woman who once made the serious mistake of not being sufficiently inquisitive grew up to make her living by asking tough and unpleasant questions. One suspects that, without Hornby's deft touch, the story of her unfortunate affair might be harder to bear.

Harper Barnes,  the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.