In 1961 London, two young couples sit in a Ravel concert. Of the four, one looks bored out of her mind, one is utterly self-satisfied; one looks longingly at his date and one stares rapturously at the musicians, completely absorbed in the beauty of the passage. This one also happens to be the youngest member of the party by a wide margin. Jenny (Carrie Mulligan, in an Oscar-worthy performance) is just sixteen, still a brilliant student in school, preparing — with her father (Alfred Molina) very much pushing her — to gain entrance into Oxford. She attends this concert with David (Peter Sarsgaard), a charming older man whom she meets on a wet, rainy day while waiting for a bus. David is everything Jenny’s relentlessly staid parents are not: witty, adventurous and, it turns out, recklessly duplicitous. On a whirlwind of a sweet courtship, Jenny becomes so enraptured with David and his friends’ life in the city, where she can listen to jazz, drink expensive booze and experience some of what she has only read about before, she begins to forsake all the other elements in her life. What sets this brilliant small film apart from its standard-sounding trappings is the intelligence and rectitude of its main character. Jenny might be young, but she is not so easily seduced. Part of David’s insidious charm is he finds that which is most compelling to people and uses that against them. Jenny is a young woman who “wants to know things.” She doesn’t become something she’s not, in the manner of a country mouse/city mouse fable, rather, she begins to experience all the things she will later come to find, but far too quickly. She takes a shortcut, in other words, not a detour. Because she never loses her sense of self, her failings and mistakes are all the more galling to her teachers, especially to Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams), who fancies Jenny as having many of the same qualities she did as a young woman. Director Lone Scherfig and screenwriter Nick Hornby, working from Lynn Barber’s excellent memoir, have crafted a wondrously self-contained narrative, here. Bittersweet and exultant, the film perfectly captures that tenuous moment in our impetuous youth where we truly don’t know enough yet to not realize we know nothing whatsoever.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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