Here is a movie that rings true without feeling terribly earnest or overly anti-commercial. It is somehow both light and tragic, elegant and sad and heartwarming. It is one of the best movies of the year.
Carey Mulligan (who reminds me of Audrey Hepburn, not just in her delicate features and needle-thin figure, but in the way she moves — like a bird, barely touching the ground) is a schoolgirl in late 1950’s England with a wistful demeanor and a desire for…something. “When I get out of school, I’m moving to France. I’m going to wear all black and read philosophy and be just as rude as I want to be.” It’s not that she’s really in love with France — or black, or philosophy — but that she’s desperate to get outside of the little world she’s stuck in. A world ruled by her father, who watchdogs her life with one goal – to get her in to Oxford. Everything activity, every expense, every thought must somehow serve that end.
But this isn’t a story about escaping from a tyrranical, domineering father, either. Mulligan loves her father (played, wondrously, by Alfred Molina) even though she is so often frustrated with him. And Molina makes him truly sympathetic– he is a man more afraid than controlling, determined to do right by his daughter, the only way that he knows how. By getting her in to Oxford. Parenting is a scary story for him, and Oxford is the happy ending. If he can only get there.
Enter Peter Sarsgaard, one of my favorite character actors. He plays the dashing older man who knows how to seduce a young girl, with her parent’s approval. He is Mulligan’s ticke to the world she’s dreamed of: art auctions, Paris, jazz, nightclubs. The chemistry between the two of them is interesting to watch: there really is no romance here. She doesn’t love him; she loves that he takes her places. And he doesn’t love her either; he loves that he gets to be the one to take her place. There’s a peculiar thrill in introducing someone to something exciting; it’s an rush that can be confused with love.
One of the remarkable things about Sarsgaard’s performance is that, from the moment we meet him, we sense some kind of character weakness about him. Things are not what they seem. We learn, when we need to; just what is askew; then we are surprised again in the third act. If Sarsgaard played his part with too much charisma, this would be a movie about the dashing gentlemen who rescues the ingenue from her stifling parents; played without enough, it would be about the slippery slope and corruption of innocents. It’s neither, but something deftly in between, and that’s what sets it apart.