The Getting of Wisdom 

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An Education
Directed by Lone Scherfig

On paper, An Education is just another clich-soused bildungsscreenplay. So, that on screen it;s anything other than an object of infuriation is a near-miracle, one that owes its success (or, its lack of utter failure) to its stellar cast and its extra-Hollywood pedigree. Up-and-comer Carey Mulligan stars as Jenny, a Mad Men-era high schooler stifled by the rigid, Oxford-or-bust academics imposed by her father (Alfred Molina, a hoot); she dreams of intellectual freedom—mostly, the liberty to see French films and listen to French records. She seems to find the happiness she seeks with David (Peter Sarsgaard), a suave and shady "art dealer" twice her age, who seduces her with the allure of adulthood elegance: nightclubs, classical music, art auctions, truancy, cigarettes, champagne, Audrey Hepburn hairdos and overnight trips. (Sarsgaard seduced Mulligan so well that she reportedly recommended him for a similar role in the Royal Court Theatre's production of The Seagull.) She's the Mariel Hemingway in his Manhattan mix.

Except this movie' set in London, which helps lend sincerity to the film's intellectual sense: the characters come across as genuine connoisseurs of fine arts; comparable American characters would surely just be dropping names from a high school reading list. (Jenny's casual discussion of Camus makes her look jejune, not brilliant.) So it's unfortunate that, otherwise, Nick "High Fidelity" Hornby's screenplay, adapted from Lynn Barber's memoir, is so dopey, patly loaded with contrived speeches (which Dogme-vet Scherfig backs with a treacly score) and easy dichotomies: while Jenny is out until nearly midnight in expensive settings, her mum is home, scrubbing the casserole dish. At least, then, the cast is uniformly excellent; the standout, as usual, is Sarsgaard, who now steals nearly every movie in which he appears. His con artist is not only easily liked but admired—even though, you know, he's a thief and, well, courting a 16-year-old and all. In black suit and shades, he's as hip as Belmondo. Too bad the movie itself is totally square.

Opens October 9

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