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A Sentimental education Sixties-style

<strong>Film<br />AN EDUCATION<br /></strong>Cert: 12A<br /><br />AN Education began life as a short story and memoir by journalist Lynn Barber, which appeared in the literary journal Granta. Small but pithy, it was about Barber&rsquo;s first boyfriend, back in 1961. Yet it was so acutely observed, and captured not only a girl&rsquo;s coming of age, but of post-war Britain coming of age as well, that it soon took on a life of its own, attracting Nick Hornby to write the script for a movie.<br /><br />The result is a mesmerising film, the star of which is the eerily talented Carey Mulligan. At 22, Mulligan is being tipped for an Oscar for her role as Jenny, the bright, self-possessed Twickenham schoolgirl who excels at English and is bound for Oxford. Living under the blinkered watch of her parents in a dreary, austere world, she feels she is withering away in her sheltered life. <br /><br />One day, waiting in the rain after orchestra rehearsal, a handsome older man offers her &ndash; and her cello &ndash; a lift in his little sports car. David offers her a glamour she&rsquo;d barely imagined &ndash; concerts, jazz and Paris, and the company of two beautiful friends, one of which is the gorgeous, and humorously vapid Helen, played by Rosamund Pyke.<br /><br />Life with David seems so much more interesting than life at school &ndash; and as a woman, Jenny doesn&rsquo;t see anything much to look forwards to, even with an Oxford degree. David&rsquo;s not entirely straightforward, and his very adult secrets prove too much for Jenny, causing her to rethink just why she wants an education.<br /><br />An Education is brilliantly observed, perfectly acted and beautifully shot and &ndash; one of the best films of the year so far. <br />Zoe Strimpel<br /><br /><strong>Theatre<br />PAINS OF YOUTH<br /></strong>National Theatre, Cottelsoe<br /><br />FERDINAND BRUCKNER&rsquo;S 1929 play, an expressionist piece set in Vienna in the 1920s, could have easily veered towards the abstract, but director Katie Mitchell and translator Martin Crimp resisted temptation, and created a compelling, beautifully presented show.<br /><br />The play follows six medical students living in the afterglow of World War One and facing up to the misery of their existences. Their lives are all entangled, promiscuous and cripplingly co-dependent, as they swing between bored disillusionment and chaos.<br /><br />They include the bisexual, provocative Desiree (Lydia Wilson), who says things like: &ldquo;Everyone should shoot themselves at 17 &ndash; after that it&rsquo;s all a disappointment&rdquo;; and ambitious, highly-strung Marie (Laura Elphinstone), caught in an agonising love triangle that brings out her violent streak.<br /><br />At the centre of it all is the monstrous Freder, played with brilliant malevolence by Geoffrey Streatfield. He&rsquo;s an alcoholic, viciously manipulative of women (he tricks a naive housemaid into prostitution), a would-be rapist and by the end of the play, worse even than that.<br /><br />The staging is highly stylised and clinical, almost like a scientific experiment. Set items are brought to the stage wrapped in plastic sheeting, and the actors themselves return to the stage between scenes and manipulate the scenery.<br /><br />The actors are terrific, managing to humanise such unsympathetic, unlikely characters. It may not be an easy show, but this production is imaginative and gripping without ever stumbling into self-indulgence.<br />Catrin Rogers<br /><br /><strong>Art<br />THE SACRED MADE REAL<br /></strong>The National Gallery<br /><br />THIS exhibition brings wondrous illumination to the austere religious art from 17th century Spain. Such is the reputation of Diego Velazquez that it&rsquo;s easy to forget there was another, darker side to Spain&rsquo;s artistic life in that era. But an early religious painting by Velazquez here, and a couple of portraits, are mere bit parts in this story of profound religious fervour and stupendous craftsmanship. <br /><br />The exhibition includes sculptures and paintings, revealing the influence each had on the other. Sculptors such as Gregorio Fernandez created life-size, painted wooden figures, emphasizing expression and realism. Painters such as Bartolome Murillo and Francisco Zurbaran rendered the same figures in dark, high-contrast images that full of passion and wonder. <br /><br />This masterfully curated exhibition makes the most of the Sainsbury Wing&rsquo;s tomb-like atmosphere. Saints in cowls and Christ figures dripping translucent blood loom out of the shadows, while an entire room is reserved for Zurbaran&rsquo;s breathtaking depiction of the dead Saint Serapion. It&rsquo;s a fitting culmination of a show that gives meaning to some spellbinding art. <br />Timothy Barber