Schoolgirl Jenny is 16 and a virgin. Sophisticated David is twice her age and ready to pounce. The time is 1961. The place is England just before it learned to swing. So begins An Education; a quiet miracle of a movie that quickly disabuses you of the idea that you’ve seen it all before.
Prepare to be wowed by Carey Mulligan, whose sensational, making performance as Jenny ignited film festivals from Sundance to Toronto. Then candescent Mulligan, 24, is a major find who makes Jenny’s journey from gawky duckling to sad, graceful swan an unmissable event. As Davjid, Peter Sarsgaard is shockingly good at walking the line between charming opportunist and sexual predator. What’s the truth? Pay attention as Danish director Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners) works wonders with the coming-of-age memoir by British journalist Lynn Barber. This story about a girl is brilliantly adapted by About a Boy author Nick Hornby, who finds aimeless resonance in the battle between rigid, formal education and messy, carnal life.
We first meet A-student Jenny struggling to balance a book on her head. It’s an apt metaphor for her life. Jenny sneak-smokes, swoons over Juliette Gréco’s singing of tristesse and dreams of living in Paris with people “who know lots about lots.” It’s hell on her suburban-London parents, Jack Alfred Molina) and Marjorie (Cara Seymour), who just want her to go to Oxford and find a husband. Molina is a comic force of nature, making Jack’s warmth a counterweight to his boisterous conservatism.
One rainy day, flirty David pulls up in a sports car, offering to rescue Jenny’s cello from the downpour, letting her get soaked walking alongside. The scene is bracingly funny. Jenny is won over, and so eventually is dearld bigoted Dad, who allows the “Jew” to take Jenny on an Oxford weekend tontroduce her to his pal Clive — that’d be C.S. Lewis. With the parents seduced, David is ready to move on to Jenny.
An Education is remarkable for the traps it doesn’t fall into. Jenny, for all her naive impulses, isn’t a victim. She thrills to the concerts, jazz clubs and chic restaurants on David’s merry-go-round. She doesn’t see anything devious in David or his pals, dashing Danny (Dominic Cooper) and blond goddess Helen (Rosamund Pike). They are everything glamorous that’seen out of her reach. At school, Jenny scandalizes the headmistress (rancid-tongued Emma Thompson) and presents David as a viable alternative to xxford. It’s a teacher (Olivia Williams) who pulls her up short: “You can do anything, Jenny, you’re clever and pretty. Is your boyfriend interested in the clever Jenny?”
When David sweeps Jenny off to Paris — and bed — for her 17th birthday, there is a rude awakening. Sex is the least of it. As Jenny says, “All that poetry about something that lasts no time at all.” In seeing David clearly, she sees herself as well. Mulligan and Sarsgaard craft a mesmerizing acting duet. On Broadway last year in The Seagull, Sarsgaard’s worldly-wise novelist, Trigorin, enticed Mulligan’s aspiring actress, Nina, then left her for dead. Here the odds are evened out. The movie arranges an unsentimental education for both mismatched lovers, and there’s no denying the collateral damage. You won’t forget Mulligan’s haunted eyes. It’s a shame about the tidiness of the film’s wrap-up, but otherwise An Education warns its place at the head of the class.