This is ‘Fish Tank’ for the suburbs: semis, not slums; safe, not sorry. Journalist Lynn Barber’s spiky memoir of striking up a relationship with an older man in early 1960s west London has been turned into an accessible comedy romance by screenwriter Nick Hornby that seems designed to play extraordinarily well in the very same privet-lined streets it describes.
It’s true that Barber, in her book, saw more absurdity than seediness in her youthful engagement to a criminal Jack the Lad at the same time as she was preparing to apply to Oxford from her Twickenham grammar school. But Hornby softens the edges further so that David (Peter Sarsgaard), her flashy suitor, is more charming than predatory, more vulnerable than cunning. The paedophile question is side-stepped entirely, even turned into a gag, and good-looking, redeemable Sarsgaard doesn’t appear to be in his late thirties, as Barber assumes in her memoir, even if he claimed to be 27 to her 16. Hornby’s script also makes too much of the peril of – God forbid – not getting into Oxford so that the film ends on an odd note that seeks false drama and resolution in Jenny being accepted or not at the university.
Luckily, Danish director Scherfig and star Mulligan give the film considerable weight by surrounding this lightly played, strange romance with both an acute understanding of Barber’s endearing screen alter ego, Jenny (Mulligan), and incisive material about the differences between this know-it-all young lady and her less worldly mum (Cara Seymour) and dad (Alfred Molina), for whom wine is a Christmas treat and the French are the enemy across the water. It’s through them that we see the first chink of light in the generation gap that would widen as the decade went on.
There’s a persistent comic tone which makes the light treatment of Jenny and David’s affair more palatable than it should be. This is provided partly by Molina and Seymour as the likeable, misguided parents, but partly by Rosamund Pike’s brilliant empty-headed posh fluff, Helen, one of the early 1960s urban beau monde that includes Dominic Cooper as Helen’s louche boyfriend, who glides with David from nightclub to art auction to dog track with Jenny in tow.
As Jenny, Mulligan offers a great impression of Audrey Hepburn once she ties up her hair, throws off her school uniform and puts on an expensive, modish dress and jewellery. She is simply excellent in the role, the perfect mix of naivety and maturity beyond her character’s years. She has a strong but down-to-earth beauty which alone does much to compensate for some of the film’s less convincing, broader moments.
Read an interview with Scherfig here