A terrific little coming-of-age tale, An Education also serves as a showcase for the vibrant, delightful Carey Mulligan. Lone Scherfig’s film – and her leading actress – were darlings of the 2009 award season, and for good reason: this quiet, nuanced recreation of UK journalist Lynn Barber’s memoir strikes a resonant emotional chord.
In 1961 Britain, 16 year-old schoolgirl Jenny (Mulligan) is waiting for the bus after a recital, getting drenched by rain. A man pulls up to her in a sporty car and rolls down the window. “If you had any sense you wouldn’t take a lift from a stranger, but I’m a music lover and I’m worried about your cello,” he begins. “So what I propose is you put it in my car and walk along beside me.”
The man is David, he’s around 40, and he’s a charmer. Jenny is initially wary, but after they bump into each other again he wears down her defenses. A relationship between a man of 40 and girl of 16 is certainly taboo these days, perhaps less so then. Jenny takes David home to meet her strict parents, played by Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour, and he’s able to charm them as well. They give him their blessing to take Jenny out to a concert as long as she’s back by 11:30.
This is unhealthy, we know, but David is played by Peter Sarsgaard, among the most sensitive actors imaginable: he’s almost able to charm us, too. Jenny plans to go to Oxford, but she’s seduced by the lifestyle that David represents (and not so much David himself; there’s precious little romance between them), by expensive cars and trips to Paris; he may not be completely on the level in his shady business dealings, but he seems to be on the level with her.
The first 80 or so minutes of An Education are pitch-perfect: thoughtful, deliberate, yet deeply engaging. The last ten or 15 minutes are less than perfect, and that’s my one qualm here. There’s a revelation towards the end, and then a brisk turnaround, and we feel “that’s an easy out” and “that doesn’t feel quite right.” That these events really happened is no consolation: the ending is rushed and feels unnatural.
But that’s only because everything before it felt so right. Scherfig, a Danish director best known for the Dogme ’95 entry Italian for Beginners and the English-language, Glasgow-set Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, has a wonderful sense of screen composition and the little things here – the framing, the placement of actors, the muted color palette – really elevate the film from what could have felt conventional.
But the real story here is Mulligan. Comparisons to Audrey Hepburn are apt: she’s positively luminescent, with those incredibly wise eyes and a vibrant, youthful spirit. She has that special quality that draws in our sympathy almost against our will, even as we watch her character make all the wrong decisions.
I cannot imagine another actress succeeding in this role to the degree that Mulligan has here, and screenwriter Nick Hornby couldn’t have predicted her either: he shifts some of the blame to the father played by Molina, lest we think “silly girl, she gets what she deserves.” But it wasn’t necessary, as we stand by Mulligan’s Jenny all the way.
It helps, of course, that she’s surrounded by an excellent supporting cast, including a magnetic Sarsgaard, Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike as David’s friends, Olivia Williams as Jenny’s teacher, and Emma Thompson as the headmistress. All make an impression. Only Molina, broadly playing an underwritten character, feels out of place.
You can read an excellent excerpt from Barber’s memoir here, though if you plan to see the film I’d recommend watching first.