Sixteen-year-old Jenny learns the ways of the world in the coming-of-age drama An Education, but there’s a revelation in store for us, as well. We get the pleasure of meeting an exciting young actress who surely deserves to become a star.
Carey Mulligan is radiant as a suburban teenager in 1961 London who is curious and clever beyond her years but still rather innocent and impressionable. Although she’s a diligent student and dutiful daughter on track to study at Oxford, she sits alone in her bedroom at night longing to be adult enough to live in Paris on her own, basking in the culture.
Mulligan maintains a beautifully believable balance of these contrasting forces, even as Jenny gets drawn from the sedate and boring life she knows into a glamorous new one.
Her guide is David (Peter Sarsgaard doing a solid British accent), a 30-something man with whom she has a chance meeting one rainy day and experiences an immediate connection. He whisks her away in his flashy sports car to nights filled with concerts and late-night suppers and, eventually, weekend trips out of town. Even her protective parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour), who are initially sceptical of David’s intentions because he’s twice her age, fall for his urbane charms. And we do, too, Sarsgaard is so smooth — even though we should know better.
David is funny and attentive, generous and sweet. He takes good care of her and seems genuinely interested in spending time with her, never pressuring her to have sex. And under his tutelage, Jenny positively thrives. She was pleasingly cute in her schoolgirl uniforms, but once she begins dressing fashionably, wearing her long hair in a twist and carrying herself with a more sophisticated air, it’s easy to see the gorgeous woman she was always meant to become. (And the details in the production and costume design are all flawless.)
Danish director Lone Scherfig and writer Nick Hornby find just the right touch here with some tricky material, based on the memoir by Lynn Barber. (It’s a rare example of Hornby, author of High Fidelity and About a Boy, adapting someone else’s work.) The challenge is: How to make David, and this ill-advised relationship, seem thrilling rather than creepy? Through Jenny’s eyes, we get caught up in the excitement, too, but as bystanders we know it can’t last — even before David’s dark side starts to surface — and that’s what gives An Education an inescapable tension.
Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike ideally round out David’s clique as the wealthy, worldly Danny and his beautiful but vapid girlfriend, Helen. With the icy, blonde looks of a Hitchcock femme fatale and a stylish wardrobe of gowns and furs, Helen may appear perfect but she’s clueless when Jenny drops French phrases here and there in her speech, and their unlikely friendship provides An Education with some comic relief.
Olivia Williams and Emma Thompson also function as strong female role models in Jenny’s life, co-starring as her English teacher and the school’s headmistress, respectively. And Sally Hawkins, so lovely in Happy-Go-Lucky, has one great scene in which she provides Jenny with a less pleasant sort of education.
You may think you know where the film is going, but its ecstasy and heartbreak will stick with you afterward nonetheless. It’s one of the year’s best.
An Education, a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving sexual content, and for smoking.
Running time: 95 minutes.
Four stars out of four.