When Lone Scherfig’s wise, colorful coming-of-age tale An Education was making the festival rounds, all points on the buzz compass were aiming directly at its star, Carey Mulligan, and rightly so. Playing Jenny, the 16 year-old clawing at the strictures of her red-brick-drab London suburb, circa 1961, Mulligan exudes a sparkler-like intellectual charm that never quite manages to hide the confused teenager within. It’s frankly all that the film, and its occasionally rote story, can do to keep up with her.
Adapted by Nick Hornby in efficient fashion from Lynn Barber’s memoir, An Education starts off like one of those stories about special people who almost get ground down by the system but manage at the last minute to escape — and write books about it. We see Jenny swanning around the tidy streets of Twickenham, swaddled in the air of the bright girl who is going places. She drops French into her conversations more than really necessary and smokes clandestinely with friends when not drilling herself for the next round of tests that will get her into the cherished (by her father) halls of Oxford. A budding existentialist in knee socks and grey sweaters, dreaming of a life in smoky French cafes and ‘interesting’ films, she’s ripe for plucking by the decade-older David (Peter Sarsgaard) when he sees her waiting at a bus stop in the rain. He offers her a lift, and maybe a new life, too.
An imposter in his own skin, with Sarsgaard’s skulking manner and hypnotically soothing voice, David is a rare and dangerous kind of film lothario. Although his first appearance sets off all sorts of alarm bells, it’s all the viewer can do not to think for a second, ‘Maybe he does just want to talk.’ A diamond in Twickenham, David is all that Jenny could ask for at the time. Broadly cultured, a crack conversationalist, possessed of mysterious reserves of cash and no (apparent) job, he takes her to classical concerts, fine restaurants, and nightclubs. David listens intently to what she has to say and doesn’t even demand her virginity as payment on all the good times and compliments. The fact that his being Jewish mortifies Jenny’s starchy schoolmistress (Emma Thompson) is just a bonus for her.
Given David’s ease and off-kilter smoothness, it’s hardly a surprise that he’s able to sweep into Jenny’s cloistered little home and convince her parents (a quiet Cara Seymour and wonderfully stuffy Alfred Molina) to let him run off with him for the weekend (a lie about meeting C.S. Lewis helps). After that, it’s all weekends in Paris and an education in the dark underpinnings of David’s bright and gay life.
With all this jazzy newness for Jenny to absorb, An Education purrs along like a finely-calibrated machine for its first two thirds. It adds one delight after another into Jenny’s life, from the imported cigarettes that she self-importantly puffs at school to the pair of dashing friends (bubbly and anti-intellectual Rosamund Pike and a knife-like Dominic Cooper). The soundtrack hums with the era’s hook-heavy pop tunes, adding that extra element of fizz to the gala proceedings — before the other shoe drops.
When Jenny’s bratty bubble of a fantasy starts to pop, there’s little satisfaction to be had at her comeuppance – Mulligan is too bright a light here to wish anything bad upon. There is also little wisdom to be gained, as the film ties everything off with a too-easy-by-half coda that borders on the smug. Much like Jenny’s baffled parents, the film doesn’t quite know what to do with such a promising girl. And if it ultimately lets her down, that could just be because life lets a lot of us down, in the end.
Eat five servings of this every day.