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Carey Mulligan is known for movies set in different eras

Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

TORONTO — "An Education," the story of a London teenager's coming of age in the epoch just before the Beatles, stars Carey Mulligan. Who's Carey Mulligan? She's terrific, that's who.

Born in 1985, she plays Jenny, a sharp-witted 16-year-old student from the "beige" London suburb of Twickenham. She's preparing for her Oxford entrance exams, but her limited social life is opened up like a flower by David (Peter Sarsgaard), a much older, free-spending suitor with flexible morals, a maroon sports car and a shady business resume.

The time is 1961, just as postwar English culture was being pulled forward while being pulled apart.

The film's Danish-born director, Lone Scherfig, has said she intended "An Education" as the '60s coming-of-age story that never managed to get made in the '60s.

Jenny is based on a real person, as found in Lynn Barber's memoir, adapted into "An Education" by the popular novelist and humorist Nick Hornby ("High Fidelity," "About a Boy"). The way Mulligan plays her, she is starry-eyed and completely centered, on the brink of anything and everything, a serene and witty observer of her own romantic puzzlements.

"It's a happy film, which is nice, because I've played a lot of tragic characters," she told me last month during the Toronto International Film Festival.

Mulligan has done a lot in a few short years, on stage in London and New York, notably in "The Seagull" with Kristin Scott Thomas; on television in the miniseries edition of Dickens' "Bleak House"; and on the big screen. Next up for Mulligan is director Oliver Stone's "Wall Street" sequel, subtitled "Money Never Sleeps." The film reunites key players of the original greed-is-good "Wall Street." It also co-stars Shia LaBeouf, who has reportedly been dating Mulligan for a few months; in the movie Mulligan plays Winnie Gekko, the estranged daughter of Gordon, again played by Michael Douglas.

"An Education," too, has an impressive ensemble, including Emma Thompson, Alfred Molina, Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike (the latter played Mulligan's sister in "Pride & Prejudice").

"Well known" is how Mulligan describes her seasoned colleagues, "but well known for good performances. In other words, it's not a celebrity cast; it's a cast of real actors." A few years ago, Thompson's performance in the Ang Lee-directed "Sense and Sensibility" made a huge impact on Mulligan, "especially in terms of doing a costume drama but not playing the costume. She's brilliant at not playing the period, but rather playing the truth of what her character's going through.

"She's always been my favorite actress. And then I got to do a film with her, so that's nice. That's a pretty good way to spend the day."

Though adapter Hornby softens some of the story's edges, "An Education" presents a teenager's sexual awakening, coinciding with her cultural and social awakening. The movie can be read various ways, she believes.

"It's weird. Lots of fathers have come up to me and said, 'I really want my 13-year-old daughter to see this.' And I'm like, whoa. We never thought of it in those (cautionary) terms. ... It's very sympathetic to David's character, and I don't think it villainizes him, and Jenny's not punished for the decisions she makes. People will see what they want to see in it. And if people want to see it as a tale of someone making a mistake in life, or as a fun, coming-of-age movie, they can."

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