No prizes for guessing – but a smack round the ear if you can’t – the missing word in the title of An Education ( Lone Scherfig). It has to be “sentimental”. Sentimental in the French sense, not the reductive English one. What could be less maudlin or schmaltzy than Nick Hornby’s script, based on a Lynn Barber memoir relating her schoolgirl-age seduction and éducation sentimentale in the 1960s? Barber, famed today as a wittily unsentimental newspaper interviewer, may have had her urbane savagery honed by this true-life narrative, which mixes Lolita with St Trinian’s, adding a dash of Gustave Flaubert.
To make the cocktail weirder, the director is Denmark’s Lone Scherfig, famed Dogmatist of Italian for Beginners. The style is threateningly bland at the start: a Harry Potterish UK suburbia complete with familiar Brit back-up actors (Alfred Molina as heroine Carey Mulligan’s genially credulous dad) and some casually inept weather shots out in the English cricket parks.
But Mulligan has a sit-up-and-watch talent. A bright-eyed innocent anxious for experience, her university-bound teenager is picked up one day, waiting at a bus stop, by a blithe smoothie. Peter Sarsgaard gives him the right bedroom-eyed charm, and soon the couple are off to Oxford to meet his supposed pal C.S. Lewis (“Clive”). Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike (doing a barely concealed and giggle-worthy Joanna Lumley impersonation) join them as Sarsgaard’s partner couple in flaky fraudulence. Virginity is no longer an option. Fast-track enlightenment and accelerated adulthood are.
Hornby’s dialogue goes for the jugular with droll regularity. Asked to weigh his daughter’s same-age boyfriend, a wannabe writer, in the scales with Sarsgaard’s friend to the authorial famous, Molina says: “Becoming a writer isn’t the same as knowing one.”
That Lynn Barber’s lightly fictionalised alter ego survives this trial by sex, duplicity and high- society imposture is owed to her sense of self – however scatty and sometimes highfalutin her style – and to the awareness we sense, nicely conveyed by Mulligan, that sometimes the right hurdles, propitiously placed, don’t impede a gifted adolescent’s growing up so much as make her more determined, more defiant, even better prepared.
There is a new sub-genre in cinema: the “gotcha” movies that blow the whistle on those dastardly folk seeking to despoil life on Planet Earth. Confronted with last-reel proof of their iniquity, these villains or vandals give the look of the caught- red-handed criminal while we, like burglar-catching Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone, yell our unspoken, triumphalist “Yes!”
Take The Cove ( Louie Psihoyos). The Japanese town of Taiji, guardian of a concealed bay where dolphins are slaughtered yearly by the tens of thousands, thought it was far from the eyes of prying do-gooders. Ric O’Barry was a serial visitor the townsfolk thought they had in hand. O’Barry is world environmentalism’s top poacher- turned-gamekeeper. He caught and trained the dolphins who played “Flipper” in the hit television series. Then, when one captivity-miserable dolphin committed suicide in his arms (claims O’Barry) by stopping breathing, he switched to freeing them by any means – mostly illegal – he could find.
O’Barry leads a team, put together by director Louie Psihoyos, that infiltrates Taiji with a truckful of low-to-hi-tech equipment to harvest truth from the killing seas. The town puts on its best keep-out show: surveillance, interrogations, guards at the site. But somehow, at dead of night, the fake rocks embedded with concealed cameras are set in place and the free-diving couple plant deep-sea sonars.
The movie is part comedy, part horror-show, part thriller – all-parts engrossing. Will the saboteurs be caught? Will they be jailed? Will they become human dolphin meat? The stakes are high, or made to seem so, and the “gotcha!” moment comes on climactic cue. The Cove is weakened only by a few unanswered questions, which the film sheers past in its headlong course. Why is it worse to slaughter dolphins than to slaughter cows or pigs? (Just because dolphins are cuter?) What of Japan’s argument that culling dolphins helps preserve smaller fish? And what is so merciful – in comparison with the revealed brutality of Taiji’s killing methods – about western slaughterhouses and murder-for-meat industries?
Starsuckers ( Chris Atkins), another documentary with “gotcha” moments, sets out to harpoon the celebrity culture. But this is a weary film on a now weary topic. I no longer care to be lectured by fame-seekers about fame-seekers – and who cares if a few talentless Joes and Janes have their Warholian 15 minutes in the sun? The film moves in belatedly, and more interestingly, on chequebook journalism. Hidden cameras catch hacks trying to hook our filmmakers posing as scuttlebutt vendors. Max Clifford too, of all unlikely victims, gets the concealed-lens treatment, spilling rash beans about his PR methods. The tone elsewhere is too often hectoring and self-righteous: a team of salesmen exhorting us not to listen to salesmen.
Folksy comedy and light-touch satire are the styles of Romania’s Tales from the Golden Age ( Ioana Uricaru, Hanno Höfer, Razvan Marculescu, Constantin Popescu, Cristian Mungiu), five Ceausescu-era narrative vignettes scripted by Cristian Mungiu. After his Golden Palm winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, a film that performed surgery without anaesthetic on the spectator’s emotions, this larky story-pack seems inspired by the Prague Spring Czech cinema of Forman and Menzel.
There are no sharp instruments, just gentle barbs and pokes. Mungiu suggests that Romania under dictatorship was at worst a comically fearful bureaucracy – as in the story of a newspaper that tries to touch up a 1974 photo of Ceausescu greeting France’s Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, only to perpetrate the howler of giving the Romanian leader two hats, one on his head, one in his hand – and at best a country inadvertently encouraging individuality through mischief and defiance.
Two youngsters invent a bottle-selling scam by collecting “air samples” in old wine or vodka bottles. A truck driver (played on cruise control by Vlad Ivanov, the terrifying abortionist of 4 Months) steals from his own chicken cargo. A couple receiving a live pig as a Christmas gift try to slaughter it in their tiny kitchen, with holocaustic results. There will no doubt be guffaws in the Odeon Bucharest. Elsewhere an indulgent grin and a few chuckles may be the most the film can expect. The use of different directors in each episode does not help, variously vitiating the yeastinesses of Mungiu’s screenplay.