Fionola Meredith falls for Lynn Barber's memories of youthful seduction
The story of an inexperienced teenage girl being swept off her feet by a seductive older man is not a new one. And the fear is that any re-telling of it will be simply plodding through the familiar steps of entrancement, seduction and ultimate betrayal.
But An Education, Nick Hornby’s screen adaptation of Lynn Barber’s memoir, is so irresistibly full of youthful joie de vivre that you’re whisked away – just like Jenny, the central character herself – forgetting entirely that you’ve heard (or seen) it all before.
Carey Mulligan, as Jenny, is a joy, convincingly evoking that characteristic teenage blend of wry world-weariness and childish delight. Deadened by her bourgeois suburban existence in post-war Twickenham, she dreams of getting a place in Oxford and leading a life of intellectual freedom and impossible sophistication.
In the meantime, she consoles herself with playing Juliette Gréco LPs on her Dansette record player - the period details are self-consciously perfect here, almost irritatingly so, as though they are eager to seize the limelight for themselves - and affecting a knowing Gallic hauteur. So when David (Peter Sarsgaard) zooms up in his stylish maroon sports car and offers Jenny and her cello a lift, she was never going to say no.
In many ways, David is a real old-fashioned bounder – glib, urbane and effortlessly plausible. He has an uncanny knack for sniffing out exactly what buttons to press to get people to do his bidding, and soon both Jenny and her parents are manipulated to perfection by David’s glamorous charms: a dull evening at home, doing the dishes and trudging off to bed, crackles with possibility as soon as he walks in the door.
David transforms Jenny’s tame schoolgirl life with visits to smoky jazz clubs, classical music concerts, pre-Raphaelite art auctions and, of course, to Paris. It’s no wonder that Jenny is utterly transfixed, and we feel that too, through her, along with the grim knowledge that this pantomime of perfect romance can never last.
Despite the familiarity of her role, Jenny is a subtle character, full of fire and spirit and self-righteous teenage principles. It’s a pity, then, that some of the other roles veer towards the cartoonish.
Alfred Molina, as Jenny’s bumblingly authoritarian yet insecure father is almost too ridiculous and absurd, too obviously played for laughs, as he thunders away pompously about the importance of homework.
And Olivia Williams, as Miss Stubbs, the English teacher who would be heartbroken to see Jenny throw away her academic career in pursuit of an inappropriate boyfriend, is a bit of a caricature too. With her scraped back hair and mannish glasses, she comes across as Miss Hardbroom with a heart. That’s essentially her role in the film – but it didn’t need to be quite so one-dimensional.
As for Jenny’s squitty, earnest little boyfriend, who buys her a Latin dictionary for her birthday – he’s so effortlessly dispatched by David that he hardly merits a place in the action at all.
But subtlety returns in the form of Rosamund Pike, who plays Helen, the dizzy girlfriend of David’s business partner Danny. Vacuous, dopey and utterly amoral, she would be all too easy to caricature. But Pike fills airhead Helen with a surprising amount of empathy, kindness and affection, lifting her above that incipient cartoonishness.
Bounders do tend to reveal their inherent loathsomeness in the end, and An Education is no different. But Jenny’s disappointment, loss and bewilderment still feels like a sad surprise all the same. That’s the magic of this film.
An Education runs at the Queen's Film Theatre, Belfast, until November 12. For more information check out the Culture Live! listings.
To watch a trailer for An Education click here.