Nominally, An Education is about a teenage girl coming of age. Practically speaking, though, it’s about Carey Mulligan’s face.
Filmmakers dream of getting the kind of magnificently open performance director Lone Scherfig gets out of Mulligan, who plays 16-year-old Jenny Mellor. A private-school student in 1961 London, Jenny’s the kind of post-war budding sophisticate who arbitrarily peppers her conversations with French phrases and listens to jazz sides when she should be doing her Latin homework. So it’s no surprise that she’d be dazzled by David (Peter Saarsgard), an older man who goes to classical concerts, supper clubs and art auctions. And maybe his exoticism runs to one or two other secrets …
Scherfig does a terrific job of establishing the middle-class world that Jenny finds so tedious—the gray tones extending from her school uniform to the rainy skies to the way her house is lit. Alfred Molina does wonderful work as her father, a character whose willingness to entrust his daughter to David felt forced upon my first viewing at Sundance in January, but with a second look reveals a believably misplaced definition of paternal responsibility. The screenplay by Nick Hornby (High Fidelity)—adapting Lynn Barber’s memoir—steps lightly while dancing with familiar coming-of-age tropes, providing a firm narrative foundation.
But An Education really turns out to be a star vehicle that didn’t know it was going to be a star vehicle. The charming Mulligan captures not just the giddiness of a girl being swept off her feet, but her amazement at finding herself in the kind of world she thought required tedious academic dues before she could gain admission. Even as Jenny discovers some of David’s shadier dealings, Mulligan sells Jenny’s acceptance of them as something she’d consider “worldliness.” While little about the story itself is groundbreaking, it feels fresh because we’re seeing it all through the eyes of a character who seems to be seeing everything for the first time.
Carey Mulligan, Peter Saarsgard, Alfred Molina