Bracingly perceptive and excitingly young, An Education is a distinctive story with universal appeal; a smart, moving, and accessible entry in the coming-of-age canon; and a deceptively restrained film that communicates with forthrightness and simmers with roiling emotions. The combination of an adroit cast, an economical style, and a literate script, achieves an alchemical feat: one of the best films of the year.
Carey Mulligan (Pride and Prejudice) plays 16-year-old Jenny, a bright student who lives with her mother and father in the suburbs of London. Her parents and teachers have high hopes for her: She is to go to Oxford. When she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard, Garden State, Kinsey), a music-lover twice her age, she falls for him and tumbles into new circles of class and culture, only to discover David is not who he claims to be.
An Education exemplifies the strengths of both director Lone Scherfig (Just Like Home) and author Nick Hornby (High Fidelity), as well as the supporting cast. Indeed, An Education shares with Hornby’s best work trenchant insight into the way hyper-verbal young people let the music, books, and films they love define themselves as they figure out who they are and what they want to be. Hornby is a first-rate craftsman of words, and his dialogue sparkles. Sarsgaard strikes an impeccable balance between snaky predator and love-struck fool.
However, Mulligan is the show-stealer and completely owns An Education, giving an Oscar-caliber performance, one of the most self-assured breakouts in years. A career-maker relies on charm and acting ability – here is a woman who has both. Mulligan possesses Audrey Hepburn-like presence, and has just the right blend of coltish awkwardness and ageless common sense. She brightens and elevates what could be considered a common lesson to something finer. It’s a beguiling introduction and a magnificent coming-out.
Thematically, one of the best things about An Education is that it’s mostly nonjudgmental: It prefers to treat a woman’s entry into the world of adult love as a saga of mystery, adventure, and heartbreak, not as an event that needs to be scripted or legislated by her elders. When it comes to first love, someone always gets hurt – not necessarily because one party is taking unfair advantage, but because sex leaves us unmistakably vulnerable. Other people can’t seduce us if we don’t seduce ourselves first.
The message is conventional; the delivery is pleasurable. Scherfig treats the affair as a real relationship, not as a schoolgirl fantasy; she doesn’t patronize Jenny by making her seem foolish or flighty. The point is that her desires are real – they may be shallow and misguided, but that doesn’t diminish their power, and she’s the one who has to work them out of her system.
Handsomely textured and beautifully acted, An Education captures the giddy hopes and fears of adolescence, and the dawn of the most transforming decade in recent memory. It’s more a character study of Jenny than a tale of tortured love, and a reminder that any education worth having comes with its share of trauma. Yet An Education isn’t alarmist or shabby, but a sly and sexy treat, romantic and life-affirming. In its precise, classical way, it succeeds splendidly.
Disarming and unexpectedly poignant, An Education is thrilling – for the brilliance of Hornby’s screenplay, the grace of Scherfig’s direction, and especially for the radiance of Mulligan, who’s wonderfully smart and perilously tender. Mulligan locates both the braininess and restless hormonal energy of a blooming adolescent. Bearing witness to Jenny’s education, in all its naiveté and brashness, passion and pain, is illuminating. This is a performance to cherish; Mulligan is on the road to stardom.