A celebration of intellectual curiosity and personal adventure through a portrait of 16-year-old English girl’s questionable romance with a man twice her age, “An Education” is a wonderful film. As a serious student in love with all things French who can’t wait to shake off the constraints of her sheltered suburban London upbringing, circa 1961, Carey Mulligan shines in a captivating performance. Lone Scherfig’s emotionally pulsing, culturally observant picture simply bursts with life, which should translate into a healthy career for Sony Pictures Classics which bought the rights at Sundance.
Based on a memoir by British journalist Lynn Barber, Nick Hornby’s droll, insightful script deftly captures the inner life of a cloistered girl selectively aware of the pleasures, both brainy and sensual, awaiting in the larger world, but who remains restricted by her blinkered parents in Twickenham and the constraints of a strict girls’ school.
An excellent student, Jenny (Mulligan) knows she’ll find what she’s looking for if her dream of being accepted into Oxford comes true. But the curtain to the wonders of adult life is pulled back sooner than expected by David (Peter Sarsgaard), a smooth, funny bloke who rolls into her life driving a gorgeous maroon Bristol and soon has her out on the town at smart concerts and clubs rather than lying in her room listening to Juliette Greco records.
David is a self-professed graduate of “the university of life,” a man able to charm Jenny’s parents into letting him squire their daughter around by flattering her demure mum (Cara Seymour) and connecting man-to-man with her father (Alfred Molina), a loud, small-minded fellow for whom an outing to the West End is an unthinkable as a trip to the moon.
David pals around with a glamorous couple, the dashingly good-looking Danny (Dominic Cooper) and the gorgeous but fearsomely superficial Helen (Rosamund Pike). Claiming he used to study with C.S. Lewis and can get “Clive” to sign a book for Jenny, David persuades her parents to allow him to drive her to Oxford for an overnight trip with his friends.
Sharing a room with his curious but properly wary date, David tries to nudge the relationship into sexual waters but respectfully settles for something romantic for the time being. Some suspicious business-dealings cast the first cloud over David, but what’s most important for Jenny is that life is so much more interesting with him around.
At school, Jenny has become quite the jeune fille a la mode, passing out colored Russian cigarettes (everyone smokes madly all the time), cluing in the other girls on the correct interpretation of existentialist notions and deciding to celebrate her rapidly approaching 17th birthday by losing her virginity, preferably on a trip to Paris that David has proposed.
Jenny’s naivete and her blindness to what might really be going on eventually fall heavily upon her. But when she sobers up to the full nature of her time with David, the good far outweighs the bad; the film puts great stock in the value of experience, of tasting what life has to offer, of gaining wisdom through trial and error.
There are many reasons — legal, moral and ethical — to object to David’s opportunistic treatment of his impressionistic young charge. But the film assumes the perspective of its protagonist, that, David’s deceptions notwithstanding, he has been someone very much worth knowing for his wit, intelligence and sense of fun.
And this is a film that is nothing if not fun.
Every scene sparkles with spry dialogue, as Jenny navigates her way in the big wide world of exciting, if devious, adults. Pic will remind viewers that, as of 1961-62, England was still stuck in postwar austerity, with the Swinging Sixties a couple of years off. Scherfig, Hornby, lenser John de Borman, production designer Andrew McAlpine, composer Paul Englishby, music supervisor Kle Savidge, costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux and all other hands alertly attend to the details of period looks, sounds and attitudes.
In this regard, the pivotal character is Jenny’s English teacher Miss Stubbs (a fine Olivia Williams), an attractive woman beneath her prim, spinsterish glasses, garb and stern attitude. Stubbs well perceives the changes in her star student, and their final confrontation is bracingly presented.
Thesping is delicious. Sarsgaard, sporting a decent accent and an ever-present twinkle in his mischievous eyes, marvelously expresses the savoir faire that has such an impact on Jenny. Cooper and Pike suggest the last gasp of overly fussy high style that will soon be replaced by Carnaby Street trendiness, Molina and Seymour aptly fill out their traditional roles, Emma Thompson has a couple of key scenes as the school headmistress, and Matthew Beard is touchingly gawky as a smitten student who realizes Jenny’s out of his reach the moment David appears on the scene.
But there’s no question of who the star is here. Mulligan, 22 when the picture was shot, is completely convincing as 16 going on 17. Attractive without being a knockout, she tangibly communicates Jenny’s thirst for knowledge, her attraction to culture and impatience atconservative ways of thinking and behaving. The way she tosses off little French phrases may be pretentious, but it adorably indicates where her head is. And when she finally gets to Paris and puts up her hair, you could almost swear you’re watching Audrey Hepburn skipping through the same streets 50 years ago.