Early in this decade a movie came out called High Fidelity, which got very strong reviews but was avoided by myself for a very long time. The idea of a romantic film starring John Cusack did not appeal to me, but eventually I did see it and was surprised to find it was a very well thought out story made more endearing by the fact that it uses a music fanatic as its main protagonist. This film was based on a novel by a man named Nick Hornby, and while the way that Stephen Frears and his team of writers adapted the film certainly had a lot to do with its success, I’d be willing to bet that the heart of what that made the film special was in the pages of Hornby’s book. Ever since that production Hornby has been a pretty hot commodity in Hollywood, adaptations of his work include About a Boy and Fever Pitch (which was made into an English version about soccer and an American version about baseball). But now the tables are turned, and now Nick Hornby has become a screenwriter adapting someone else’s work, in this case a memoir of a British journalist named Lynn Barber about her coming of age.
The film is set in suburban London circa 1961 and focuses on a sixteen year old girl named Jenny (Carey Mulligan) who is both beautiful and the smartest girl in her class. Her parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) have her on a strict regimen that will hopefully result in her being accepted to Oxford. One part of this regimen is that she’s taken up the cello, and this leads to a chance encounter after a band rehearsal with a man in his thirties named David (Peter Sarsgaard) who offers her a ride home. After this encounter David begins to romance Jenny and invites her on extravagant outings with his friends Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike). Jenny’s teacher (Olivia Williams) and headmistress (Emma Thompson) become concerned with this affair and warn that it will threaten her future education, but a life with David is beginning to seem like just as viable a future to Jenny as Oxford, after all he’s able to bring her into high society without having to waste time with a bunch of petty students for three years.
Perhaps the thing this film will be most remembered for is that it introduced the world to Carey Mulligan. Mulligan has heretofore mostly accumulated credits for small parts on English television and is probably most noted for a small role alongside Keira Knightley in the Joe Wright adaptation of Pride & Prejudice. Her work here has been championed as a breakthrough and I will not disagree, she has real star potential. For this role Mulligan must be a teenager who thinks she’s wiser than she really is and has an energy that makes her standout amongst her peers. In this sense the role is not unlike the title role in the 2007 film Juno, albeit in a completely different time and place and without the Diablo Cody-isms. Like Page before her she is able to walk that line between appearing naïve while outwardly trying to exude sophistication and spunk.
She is however just one part of a very strong ensemble. Peter Sarsgaard has the difficult task of making the audience forget that he is a thirty-something creep trying to sleep with a teenager so as to show why said teenager would fall for him. He needs to be charming and pleasant, while also having a bit of that dark side beneath the surface. Alfred Molina is also going to get a lot of attention for his work here, and this is well deserved. His character is pretty funny in his often silly values, and this could have played pretty fake if the actor wasn’t up to the task. Molina makes the father character seem like a real person, even when he’s places the value of knowing a famous author above being a famous author. Actors in smaller roles like Cooper, Pike, Williams, and Thompson also nicely fill out the cast.
Like Mulligan, director Lone Scherfig has emerged from obscurity as an important talent out of this project. I’ll bring up Juno again as a point of comparison, because like Jason Reitman she seems able to give an ambitious directorial edge to her work without suffocating the material with overwhelming style. She’s able to emphasize the glamour of Jenny and David’s outings in a way that makes it seem as intoxicating to the viewer as it does to Jenny in a way that is essential to the believability of the story. Of course this would all be wasted were it not for the solid script by Nick Hornby who further proves that he has a knack for creating endearing and likable characters while giving them really clever, but not overly stylized dialogue.
As I’ve established, there was a lot of talent put behind this and it shows up onscreen, but I ultimately couldn’t help but feel a bit underwhelmed by the end result. I can’t help but think that Lynn Barber’s story was perhaps not worthy of all this talent. It’s clear from the beginning that this relationship is heading for disaster and that Jenny is walking into a trap, so this isn’t really much of a romance. And while there are some good giggles throughout I wouldn’t really recommend it simply as a comedy, so how is this going to stand on its own merely as a story? This is where the house of cards falls down, because as a story this is actually a pretty simplistic work preaching the moral that younglings shouldn’t try to grow up too fast, they should stay in school, and not try to take shortcuts. Sound familiar? Yeah, it’s basically the best written, best acted, and best crafted afterschool special ever made. This shortcoming is made worse by a twist towards the end which prevents the character from learning something for herself and instead has the truth thrust upon her.
If ever there has been a movie that more toughly challenges Roger Ebert’s adage that “it’s not what a movie is about, but how it’s about it that matters” in my mind. The “what” that this movie is about is rather boring to me, but the “how” it’s about it is very strong. Ultimately, I’m going to have to split the difference and recommend that people see this movie in order to enjoy it in the moment, enjoy the acting, enjoy the script, enjoy the filmmaking, but the whole affair is more shallow than it first appears and it avoids a lot of the tougher questions involved in favor of light-handed moralizing.
*** out of four