The Messenger delivers high drama, An Education good acting

by Mark Burger

Screenwriter Oren Moverman makes an auspicious directorial debut with The Messenger, a topical and hard- by Mark Burger hitting drama contributing columnist that ranks among 2009’s best films.

Ben Foster stars as Will Montgomery, a sergeant in the US Army and a veteran of the war in Iraq. Still nursing the physical and psychological scars of his stint, he is paired with Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), himself a veteran, and the two men are assigned to “casualty notification” duty. It is they who deliver the bad news to the next of kin that a soldier has met his or her fate in service to their country.

Neither Will or Tony has fully come to terms with their own combat experiences, and neither has completely re-adjusted to coming home. Now, because of this assignment, they are forced to confront and re-examine those experiences on a regular basis — and it’s taking a heavy emotional toll on both of them.

Intimate and dramatically intense, The Messenger does not directly address this country’s military involvement in Iraq. It doesn’t need to. The lasting effect that it’s had on Will and Tony — and on those they encounter during their “house calls” — is plainly depicted here. War (of any kind, and under any circumstance) is a deadly and destructive endeavor, both for its victims and its survivors.

There’s a freshness to the neophyte director Moverman’s work here, particularly in his unwillingness to let easy sentiment carry the day. There are quite a few poignant and powerful moments in The Messenger, such as Will’s growing relationship with a young war widow (the excellent Samantha Morton) and Tony’s ongoing bout with alcoholism, and the story never resorts to contrivance in its approach. This is tough stuff, and totally credible throughout.

In addition to Harrelson, Foster and Morton — all of whom acquit themselves in exemplary fashion — there’s good support from Jena Malone, as the girl Will left behind (now betrothed to another), Eamonn Walker as the tough (but not inhuman) colonel to whom Will and Tony answer; and Steve Buscemi, briefly but memorably seen as an anguished father.

The Messenger is a film not easily forgotten, with an impact that resonates long after the end credits have rolled. It’s a film its makers can justly be proud of.

Newcomer Carey Mulligan’s performance is the best thing about An Education, a wistful and well-acted coming-of-age story that nevertheless follows a not-unfamiliar pattern.

Mulligan’s Jenny is a bright, studious 17-year-old in London, circa 1961. Her parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) tend to emphasize her academic growth rather than her emotional growth, and like many teenagers (then and now), Jenny is restless and anxious to revel in the frivolity of youth.

Enter David (Peter Sarsgaard), a handsome and charming (and older) man taken by Jenny’s charm. To Jenny, David appears worldly and sophisticated, and she naturally gravitates toward him. He’s so smooth that he’s able to win over her parents with minimal effort, and before too long they are a romantic couple.

But it should come as no surprise that David isn’t quite what he appears to be, hence Jenny’s “education.” She’ll be doing a lot of growing up in a very short period of time, and much of it will be painful.

Adapted from Lynn Barber’s memoir by Nick Hornsby and directed by Lone Scherfig, An Education boasts its fair share of solid performances, including those of Olivia Williams as Jenny’s teacher; Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike as David’s friends, who are understandably wary of the relationship (more for Jenny’s sake); and, in a knockout cameo, Emma Thompson as the hard-nosed headmistress of Jenny’s school, who’s been down this road many times before.

That young Mulligan holds her own (and more) against such strong co-stars is the film’s most noteworthy attribute. She’s entirely believable as a girl who’s not as guileless as her parents think, but nor is she as mature as she herself thinks. It’s the performances, more than the overall story, that make An Education worthy.

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