As coming-of-age films go, “An Education” is one of the better ones – and one of the few that doesn’t equate “coming-of-age” with “horny teen boy,” past or present.
Instead, director Lone Scherfig’s film, adapted by Nick Hornby from a memoir by Lynn Barber, is about a quietly adventurous girl, Jenny (Carey Mulligan), who suddenly has the door opened for her into a world of sophisticated adulthood she had only imagined. Thanks to a carefully etched performance by Mulligan, her journey may be bittersweet, but the sweet (and the funny) outweigh the bitter.
Jenny is nearing the end of high school at a private school in the dull London suburb of Twickenham. It’s 1961, that cusp period shortly pre-Beatles, in the days when edgy means the French new wave, American cool jazz and smoking Gauloises.
Jenny is bored to death with school, though her parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) and her teachers pressure her about her performance and how it will affect her ability to get into college. Still, her father seems ambivalent, wondering if he’s wasting his money, given his conviction that Jenny would be just as well off to skip college, get a job and find a husband.
Then Jenny meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), a charming older man (i.e., in his 30s), who sweeps her off her feet. Though she’s only 16, she’s mature for her age – but not so mature that she isn’t overcome a little by the glamour of a man with his own car and a sharp suit – and an interest in her. He woos her with invitations to hear string quartet concerts in flashier parts of London than she’s used to, followed by drinks in posh bars.
Better still, he’s able to snow her parents, convincing them that he’s a respectable young man with only the best intentions for their daughter. Before long, she’s complicit in his lies that get her parents to let her join him on overnights in England and Paris.
Still, there are inklings that David isn’t necessarily who he seems to be. Gradually, Jenny learns the first of several lessons: that things that seem to be too good usually are.
If the eventual destination of this story seems preordained, the journey itself is both captivating and compelling. Mulligan, with her control and slight hauteur, still evinces the suppressed glee of a young person finally allowed to act like the adult she’s always felt herself to be. She also captures the withering contempt that her parents bring out in her, because they seem both unutterably square and totally out of tune with how she sees herself. To them, she’s still their little girl; she, however, has lost that little girl’s awe for her parents, suddenly seeing only their flaws and shortcomings.
It’s a performance of dazzling nuance, full of feeling without being splashy or overly emotional. She mixes toughness, fragility, intelligence and naiveté into a heady characterization.
That’s taking nothing away from either Molina, as the sometimes-overbearing father, or Sarsgaard, who can shift from smooth to creepy and back again with a look and an inflection. Emma Thompson brings sting to a small but crucial role as the school’s stern headmaster, while Olivia Williams finds the right balance between mousy and independent as one of Jenny’s teachers who takes a particular interest in her student.
“An Education” is a small, polished gem for the fall season: the kind of film that reminds you what being that age was like, in all its intoxicating, occasionally painful splendor.