Film Review: An Education

Coming-of-age story offers an ageless lesson in life, but <i>An Education</i> is ever fresh, never didactic, and very entertaining.

Other than its title, which wants a qualifier of some sort, An Education comes close to perfection: inspired casting and performances, exquisite design and photography, witty and well-crafted script, empathic yet nuanced direction. The film never flags from the opening title sequence (whimsical chalkboard doodles animated to Floyd Cramer’s bouncy “Rebound”) to the closing sultry ballad (“Smoke Without Fire” by Welsh singer Duffy); the music in between, integrated into the narrative rather than imposed upon it, reflects the loving attention to detail that informs the movie throughout.

Then there’s Carey Mulligan, the 24-year-old actress (22 at the time of production) who makes her leading-lady debut as 16-year-old Jenny, the Twickenham schoolgirl who comes of age just as London embraces the swinging ’60s. Mulligan is the most interesting ingénue to grace the screen since Audrey Tautou delighted audiences in Amélie. The comparison evokes the romance of Paris, which, indeed, makes a cameo appearance in the film, but Jenny is unmistakably British, as is An Education.

British circa 1960, to be more precise. Jenny, studying diligently to gain entrance to Oxford, nurtures more glamorous fantasies, sneaking Gauloises with her girlfriends and singing along, en français, with Juliette Greco on the phonograph. One rainy afternoon after orchestra rehearsal, Jenny is rescued from a downpour by David, who offers her a ride home in his Bristol roadster. David is thirty-something, charmingly urbane, and surreptitiously immature, a role perfectly suited for the boyishly suave Peter Sarsgaard. Their chance encounter methodically progresses from innocent flirtation to serious affair, with ensuing complications and consequences that rock Jenny’s world.

The script is more sophisticated than this précis suggests—an Oscar-worthy effort by the able Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy), who adapted the short memoir by Lynn Barber originally published in Granta magazine (and about to be republished with other writings in book form this fall). Danish director Lone Scherfig (Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, Italian for Beginners) shows great affinity for the material, a director with a gift for making flawed characters likeable—everyone in the film, no matter how brief his or her part, comes across fully formed—and she gets the little things right. Jenny and her classmates read Penguin Classics in equally classic Tschichold-designed paperbacks; David sports blue serge with narrow lapels, neat pocket squares and too-jaunty trilbys, retrofitting Connery’s Bond with a dab of Niven’s; Jenny’s father, played alternately solicitous and supercilious by Alfred Molina, ties on a frilly apron to protect his pinstripes when helping with the dishes, a costume uncannily suited to his character. Cat’s-eye glasses, bouffant hairdos, patent-leather heels and pocketbooks seem stylish again: The film evokes the period with such affection, we wonder why we gave up nylons, skinny ties and cigarettes.

Ironically, the most accomplished member of the ensemble, Emma Thompson, strikes the film’s only false notes, although it’s not her fault. As the sour headmistress of Jenny’s school, she stands in for the clichéd close-minded parochialism of Britain (and America) before the baby-boomers liberated both countries from the cultural doldrums. It’s a thankless, heavy-handed role and a bit of dreary pontification in a movie that easily could have lapsed into a full-length lecture on moral turpitude.

Hornby and Scherfig, thankfully, eschew sententious sermonizing; in the end, everyone, including Jenny’s parents, conspires in her seduction, and ancient lessons are once again hard-learned. An Education drops a few parables (watch for the one about the money tree!), but the filmmakers allow us to draw our own conclusions about the action unfolding before us. If this tutorial on love and ambition closes with a too-pat ending, well, the pedagogy is happily free-form.