A terrific lumps-and-all coming-of-age story, An Education is more than just a brilliant, beguiling performance from Carey Mulligan. It’s also a hopeful, honest look at an individual and a society on the edge of great, perhaps painful change—and one of the best films of 2009.
Based on Lynn Barber’s 2009 autobiography, An Education follows young Jenny (Carey Mulligan) in her final year at an all-girl’s prep school in the suburbs of London. It’s 1961—the Beatles are still hidden away in Hamburg; the style icons are John and Jackie, not Jimi and Janis; and London has not yet begun to swing. The world is on the cusp of great cultural change and so is Jenny. Preparing for Oxford and eager for a bohemian life of French singers and cigarettes, she’s smarter, more knowing than her classmates and her well-meaning, middle-class parents (who encourage her studies primarily so she’ll find a good man at university). Winning in her self-aware naiveté, the girl yearns to escape to adulthood.
One day in the rain, that escape pulls up in a sharp maroon sports car. David (Peter Sarsgaard) is suave and sophisticated, older and exciting, but also charming and kind. He gives Jenny and her cello a lift, and soon she’s thoroughly seduced not just by David’s grown-up world of smoky jazz clubs and champagne trips to Paris, but also by his love of culture and learning for their own sake.
Carey Mulligan was rightfully nominated for an Oscar for An Education—this is a surefooted, star-making performance graced with a seemingly effortless touch. (The Audrey Hepburn comparisons have been mentioned before, but rightfully so. It’s no coincidence Mulligan is now the front-runner to play Eliza in the My Fair Lady remake.) Beautifully conveying intelligence and confidence as well as doubt and confusion, Mulligan continually turns over both sides of Jenny. Trying on worldliness, she slides easily from a winning smile to a pained scowl to an exasperated roll of eyes that are alternately sparkling and weary. Jenny is a sad rarity in film these days: a smart character who acts it—pondering, questioning, already aware of life’s compromises and disappointments, but also vulnerable to the mistakes even the smart make when they think they have it all figured out.
But this is not a case of a film acting as an appendage to a great performance. Danish director Lone Scherfig and screenwriter Nick Hornby (author of High Fidelity and About a Boy), have crafted a warm and engaging film that smoothly sweeps you along almost without you noticing. It’s fun without resorting to inane hijinks, stylish but honest in its depiction of both the joys and heartbreaks of growing up, and moving without becoming mawkish. Like Mulligan’s portrayal of Jenny, An Education must walk a fine line between breezy promise and tough lessons without coming off jaded or cynical. It does so with a delightful spirit–there should have been two women in the Best Director category this year.
That quality reverberates throughout the cast. The film wouldn’t work if we didn’t fall for Sarsgaard’s David right along with Jenny–he uses his sly squint and vaguely reptilian smile to build an earnest, seductive gentility. The fact that David is Jewish in an England that’s still quietly anti-Semitic gives him a vulnerability Jenny can’t resist, especially when mixed with just the right hint of the mysterious outsider. In the shadow of Mulligan’s triumph, Sarsgaard doesn’t get enough credit for the nuanced balance he brings to David–a man who’s charmed even himself into believing he’s a good guy.
Alfred Molina is wonderful as Jenny’s befuddled father, a man awkwardly trying to bluster his way past fears of world too wide for his understanding. Dominic Cooper (The History Boys, Mamma Mia!) and Rosamund Pike (Surrogates) are terrific as David’s friends and accomplices—Pike especially, deftly playing the “dumb blond” who isn’t aware that her moral complacency exists, let alone is an issue. As Jenny’s literature teacher, Olivia Williams carries the role of “cautionary example” (the over-educated “spinster”) with weary dignity, and Emma Thompson shows up as the film’s societal heavy—the frowning Thatcher-esque warble of the racist, sexist Establishment.
Thanks to those performances, An Education is no existential mope—it’s an entertaining and compelling romance, complete with pitfalls and regrets. What makes the film rewarding on repeat viewings are the layers of ideas about what education and knowledge are, where they come from and what purpose they serve–whether they’re taught in school books or life’s cruel classroom.
Jenny may eventually realize you’re never as smart or mature as you think you are, and that the most important lessons are learned from making stupid mistakes. But ultimately An Education is about wanting more than the narrow options you’re offered–even if pursuing it comes with a price.