24-year-old Carey Mulligan (2009's "Public Enemies
") has appeared in several minor film roles in the past, both in her native UK as well as Stateside, but it is her phenomenally charismatic work in "An Education" that will stand as her career breakthrough. Appearing in every scene, Mulligan ably carries the film, wavering in between that of a 16-year-old child still waiting for her life to start and that of someone older and more na´vely worldly, faced with confusing, hypocritical expectations during a timethe early 1960swhen it was common practice for women to give up the potential to go to college and have a career if it meant being taken care of by a man. Based on the memoir by Lynn Barber, director Lone Scherfig and screenwriter Nick Hornby have crafted a resonant coming-of-age story, at once tough and delicate, that signifies how much times have changed in the proceeding fifty years, and, in other ways, how much they have stayed the same.
In the London burg of Twickenham, circa 1961, high schooler Jenny (Carey Mulligan) lives with her parents, Jack (Alfred Molina) and Marjorie (Cara Seymour), and sticks to the straight and narrow in the hopes of being accepted at Oxford University. Simmering beneath the surface is a streak of rebellionwhile her father forces her to study Latin, she is much more interested in French culturebut it isn't until she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard) one rainy afternoon and he offers her a lift home that she senses the real world of possibilities outside her front door. Soon David is sweeping Jenny off to classical concerts, upscale nightclubs, and trips to Oxford and Paris, her schoolwork suddenly placed on the backburner as she gets lost in experiencing life over academics. That David is twice Jenny's age is a non-issue in this erahe charms the pants off Jack and Marjorie upon meeting them, and they are more than happy to see their daughter treated so well by a suitorbut the freedom and excitement is just a temporary mirage. As Jenny considers giving up on her schoolingand is heartbroken to discover that her dad is so easily willing to toss away his Oxford dreams for her in exchange for a conformist attitude about marriageshe gradually learns that David is not quite the person she thought he was. By this point, unfortunately, the damage to her future may have already been done.
"An Education" is romantic in its nostalgia of a time in a young person's life when they are first given the chance to explore, experiment, and see the world from beyond the shadow of parental guidance. Mistakes are usually made along the way, and our protagonist, Jenny, makes them, but in her experiences she believes she is receiving an education far beyond what she could learn in the confines of a four-walled classroom. In some ways, she does, but it is at the expense of a different sort of knowledgethe kind that will help her to make a place for herself as an individual with hopes, wishes and interests to call her own. Jenny's professor, Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams), sees her prized pupil's hard working slipping down the drain and cannot stand it. The school's headmistress (Emma Thompson) is even sterner, making it clear that if Jenny misses her first chance at an academic future, she may not get another one. And then there is Jenny's father, who sees David as someone who will provide for her. Meanwhile, mother Marjorie silently stands along the sidelines, hoping that her daughter does not follow in the footsteps she herself chose years ago.
Before things get complicated, they are magical. Jenny's first trip to a concert and nightclub, with singer Beth Rowley onstage providing just the right background entertainment, is one that she dubs "the best night of my life," and it certainly seems close to it. As Jenny journeys from home, sometimes guiltily under false pretensesshe tells her parents they are spending the weekend in Oxford to attend a rare appearance and book signing by C.S. Lewisshe always must balance her own moral compass with the seduction of what surrounds her. Her relationship with David is a tricky one, not built upon sex (she tells him she is waiting until she turns seventeen, a date fast approaching) but on the power he has over her by being able to show her a good time and treat her to exotic gifts. His means are ultimately stretched thinner than one first expects, and Jenny, for a time, begins to lose sight of herself. It is to be expected for an impressionable person of her age, and it is all the more satisfying when she finally wises up and takes control of her destiny.
Expressive and beautiful, but not made up or overly affected, Carey Mulligan is stunning as Jenny. At the threat of sounding hyperbolic and obvious, her smiles light up the screen, her tears break hearts, and her every action is an honest one. She is a heroine the viewer wants to follow. Part out of necessity and partially from underwriting, Peter Sarsgaard (2009's "Orphan
") must play a symbol rather than a fully fleshed-out character as David. One never quite pieces together why he chose to meet Jenny, or what he hopes to get from their relationship. His feelings for her appear genuine, but his forthright honesty (or lack thereof) is a different story. Nonetheless, Sarsgaard is a captivating draw in the part, the catalyst for Jenny's trek toward growing up. Other performances are on-point and effective, from Dominic Cooper (2008's "Mamma Mia!
") and Rosamund Pike (2009's "Surrogates
") as David's friends Danny and Helen, to Olivia Williams (2003's "Peter Pan
") as Miss Stubbs, to Alfred Molina (2008's "Nothing Like the Holidays
") as Jenny's caring, if misguided, father. Of the supporting actors, however, it is Cara Seymour (2004's "Evergreen
") who warrants attention in the quiet, but ever more deeply poignant, role of Jenny's mother Marjorie. Seymour says little, but watch herall of the longing, the regret in her past, and the private jealousy for what Jenny has can be read as clearly as crystal on her face.
The ending that "An Education" arrives at may not please everyone. It feels a little too easy and tidy at quick inspection, but look closer and it is critical in order to fully observe where Jenny started in the story and the path taken to where she finds herself at the end. The earth doesn't shake and it is not exactly an unpredictable conclusion, but it is the right one. Jenny is stronger because of what she has gone through, and also more aware of why it means so much that she make something of herself beyond society's conventional expectations. "An Education" is a winning entertainment, but also warmly perceptive about the delicacy of relationships and the tough lessons of edging into adulthood.