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MOVIES: Scherfig turns 'Lolita' story from taboo to touching

Special Photo: Sony Pictures Classic . Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard star in "An Education."

Special Photo: Sony Pictures Classic . Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard star in "An Education."

"An Education" (PG-13)

4 out of 4 stars

If there is such a thing as a classy movie about an older man dating an underage female, "An Education" is it. Anyone making a film with such potentially explosive and touchy subject matter must pull off a flawless balancing act and that is exactly what director Lone Scherfig and screenwriter Nick Hornby have done.

Both the 1962 and 1997 versions of "Lolita" were incorrectly perceived by many as being a lurid story about a dirty old man and a victimized teenage girl. Even though its plot is similar, "An Education" is devoid of the dark and seedy undertones that made "Lolita" a "dirty" movie. It achieves greatness by almost ignoring the sexual aspects and instead telling a story about the allure of power, wealth and class.

Jenny (Carey Mulligan, a dead-ringer for Katie Holmes) is your textbook overachieving high school student. She's the smartest girl in her class but doesn't show it off, something that both impresses and disappoints her teacher, Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams).

When at home we get an idea of where Jenny gets her drive. In a loving yet relentless manner, her domineering but shortsighted father Jack (Alfred Molina) sees to it she is in peak form and frowns on her participating in anything resembling fun or relaxation. Mostly because he can't really afford it, Jack wants Jenny to secure a scholarship to Oxford, which seems pretty much to be a lock.

Jenny's rigid routine is interrupted one day when she's offered shelter from a rainstorm by David (Peter Sarsgaard), a dashing, totally non-threatening stranger who breaks the ice by talking about her music. He sees her home in a charming and humorous way and the seed of their friendship is casually sown.

Wise beyond her years and about to turn 17, Jenny runs into David again and can't help but being drawn to his low-key demeanor, clean-cut appearance, spiffy sports car and knowledge of the arts. Not missing a beat, he invites her to a recital in way he might ask someone for the time. Without even thinking about it she accepts. That's about all of the information you need or should know going in to this film, which is by far one of the best of 2009.

"An Education" is the Danish Scherfig's first English language film and everything about it simply oozes unfettered style and low-key confidence. From the eclectic soundtrack featuring obscure classical pieces, jazz and retro pop to the impeccable 1960s costume and set design and radiant, panoramic photography, this movie is as technically stunning as it is superbly written, performed and directed. The film seamlessly blends crisp art-house aesthetics with warm, old-style Hollywood flourishes and the result is irresistible and intoxicating. It almost makes you forget about that huge elephant in the room.

Just when you think the filmmakers are going to take the most convenient path they casually switch direction and throw the audience for a loop. You have no idea where it's going to go yet you're not surprised by what happens in the end.

"An Education" is graceful yet gritty, breezy but direct and sexy without being sexual. If you can get beyond the questionable premise and give this near-perfect movie a chance, you won't be disappointed. (Sony Pictures Classics)