For the most part, I don't like contemporary horror movies, but then I may just be too sensitive to enjoy the pastoral image of a woman being fed into a food processor by a man in a clown mask. I accept that this is a matter of taste, and that perfectly decent people who never compare universal health care to Nazi concentration camps can, and do, enjoy spending evenings eating popcorn while looking at scenes of simulated and sexualized vivisection.
My biggest problem with horror movies, though, is that I do like scary movies, and I just don't find horror films to be very scary. But An Education, which is ostensibly a cautionary romance/coming-of-age film, is terrifying. It's the most effectively frightening film I've seen since that Larry King/Tom DeLay sex video was accidentally shown on Oprah.
An Education is, nonetheless, not a horror movie. Rather, it's a memoir of a few months in the life of Jenny Miller (Carey Mulligan), a 16-year-old girl living outside of London in the early 1960s. Her middle-class parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) want her to go to Oxford, because they think that's where you meet rich men who know how to pronounce "Alcibiades." Jenny follows along with their plan by studying hard, learning to play the cello so she'll have an outside interest to put on her college application, and avoiding England's most common malady: Guinness-induced pregnancy.
Then she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), a much-older man, and she acquires special feelings in her schoolgirl skirt. It's Sarsgaard's performance as the suspiciously charming David that takes An Education from quaint coming-of-age drama to shivering festival of apprehension. While Jenny falls in love with him, and David seems to reciprocate, there's an overwhelming sense that something is terribly wrong—and not just because David is old enough to be her father's creepy best friend. Sarsgaard creates a feeling of horrifying and immense danger by virtue of his calm, creepy and compelling delivery. When he enters the film, there's an overwhelming sense that horror is about to unfold.
Jenny gets drawn into the wealth and glamour that surround David and his two associates: an upper-crusty collector of beautiful things named Danny (Dominic Cooper), and Danny's couture-covered and semi-literate arm-piece Helen (Rosamund Pike). While David and his pals all have a vaguely criminal air to them, that doesn't account for the sense of danger. Instead, there's just something consistently and vaguely wrong, with suspicions increasing at each turn. It's a testament to director Lone Scherfig that she could create this suspense without clearly implying what it is that one should fear from David. Scherfig is helped immensely by Sarsgaard's performance, and also, I assume, by the fact that her name is "Lone Scherfig."
But what really brings the horror home is the way the movie seems to be struggling between two genres. On the one hand, there's the lovely tale of Jenny's schooldays and the oh-so-handsome man with his posh motorcar who actually seems to be interested in more than her anatomy. And then there's the lurking horror. This creates a series of back-and-forth motions: At one moment, David has the smiling intensity of a rapist, but a minute later, he's given the opportunity for violence and violation, and instead starts speaking in baby-talk and engaging in innocent cuddling—which is both a relief from the tension that preceded it, and somehow even creepier and more suspenseful.
These twists make An Education weirdly disorienting but also compelling. Nick Hornby, of High Fidelity and About a Boy, wrote the script, but whereas his earlier films are focused on male characters, Education is really about the psyche of young Jenny. Hornby adapted the memoir by Lynn Barber, and much of the story is, ostensibly, based on real events.
Whether the events are real or not, the odd thing is how real they feel. This is unusual in a film, because, in general, lives don't have plots, so the very thing that makes most movies interesting—the connectedness and direction of their stories—is what makes them seem fake. With An Education, there is no plot, only the motion of growing up. The viewer is pulled along not by the narrative connection of events, but by the hints they leave about a possible story lurking behind the random occurrences.
When the end does come, it's unexpected and perhaps not as satisfying as the buildup implied. But it's still effective, and with Mulligan and Sarsgaard giving overwhelmingly strong performances, and the neat direction of Lone Scherfig, Education fails to deliver clichés or stock scenarios; yet, somehow, the film succeeds at being entertaining.