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An Education (Blu-ray Review)

29 Mar, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Street 3/30/10
Sony Pictures
Box Office $12.5 million
$28.96 DVD, $38.96 Blu-ray
‘PG-13’ for mature thematic material involving sexual content, and for smoking.
Stars Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Emma Thompson, Alfred Molina, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike.

Viewed as a biographical adaptation — which, as a starting point, categorizes this best picture Oscar nominee — there are a couple surprises from the get-go. The first is that predominantly “guy” novelist Nick Hornby — known to moviegoers for the sterling screen versions of About a Boy and High Fidelity (or as my friends refer to the John Cusack character’s anal list-making: “The Mike Clark Story”) — wrote the screenplay.

The other is the volume of superior material Hornby concocted from a mere smidgen of writer Lynn Barber’s already novella-sized memoir about early-1960s London (just a little before it became the Julie Christie type of “Swinging London”). Barber’s book is short enough to be read easily in two sittings, if not less, and also chronicles her subsequent life at Oxford (with mega-lovers before settling down in a compatible marriage) and her years employed by Mr. Penthouse Bob Guccione, which cannot have been like working for Field and Stream.

In fact, Barber says she didn’t even play a musical instrument in real life — when in the movie, she meets the man who will temporarily change her life when he offers her (and her cumbersome cello case) a ride home in his car. As it works out, all this literary license doesn’t hurt. Psychologically, the result seems on the money, and the core story is a good one.

Which is: how a 16-year-old here named “Jenny” (most deserving Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan) revels in the unexpected opportunity to go to concerts, upscale restaurants and other teen-dream escapes when she meets this 30-ish man of mystery (the fact that he’s Jewish compounds his exotic dimension). Oddly, it is her parents — including a hitherto disciplinarian father — who seem even more taken. A few flowers, a few compliments, some time spent making thoughtful conversation: it works wonders to break down authoritative barriers.

Co-star Peter Sarsgaard is an actor whose face can suggest just about what the viewer cares to read into it, which is perfect for playing a character who, little by little, is revealed to be much less than he seems. This much older suitor lets Jenny accompany him (with friends) when he makes stop-offs at strange apartments, where we (if not she) quickly sense that something’s not quite on the level. The wait in the car is the kind to make one bored or at least fidgety, and one day (uh, oh) Jenny opens the glove compartment.

The movie has the feel of (and certainly the title conveys) a lesson learned — which is, of course, the point. Or maybe we’re talking about lessons, plural, because Jenny learns a lot about her father as well, or at least has suspicions confirmed. The latter is played by the great chameleonic character actor Alfred Molina, previously seen as muralist Diego Rivera in Frida, Doc Ock in Spider-Man 2 and figuring in the single craziest scene of Boogie Nights (which is saying something).

The bonus featurettes are the usual back-patting boilerplate, though I liked getting the chance to see Nick Hornby. But the deleted scenes, which include what appears to be an alternate ending, are well above average. Filled in are a lot of episodes about Jenny’s incorrigibility at her girls’ school, where the headmistress (Emma Thompson) catches her smoking and — knowing this is one transgression she can prove — says she feels like the person who sent Al Capone up the river for tax evasion.

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