Schoolgirl falls for older man in impeccable, but uneven ‘An Education’
Just because it’s an old story doesn’t mean everybody’s heard it. As long as there are dewy-eyed young women and dashing older men to pursue them, stories like An Education will continue to play out. Drenched in early ’60s atmosphere, and impeccably produced in every detail, Lone Scherfig’s adaptation of the Lynn Barber memoir tells a familiar story from the fresh and compelling viewpoint of a very bright, very young woman for whom it is all happening for the first time. The plot may not be entirely credible onscreen, but the emotions involved are explored with honesty, insight, and humor.
Scripted by Nick Hornby, the film revolves around Jenny, a 16-year-old English schoolgirl on the cusp of womanhood studying for her final exams in hopes of getting into Oxford. It’s a showcase role for newcomer Carey Mulligan, who plays Jenny with a disarming mix of pert, giggling girlishness, attempted sophistication, and tart self-awareness. It’s 1961, and Jenny craves la vie boheme; she sneaks ciggies with her girlfriends out on the playground, listens to Jacques Brel records, and scatters French remarks into her conversation.
At the moment, however, she’s stuck in suburban Twickenham with her sympathetic Mum (Cara Seymour), and irascible Dad (Alfred Molina), who never stops drilling her in the importance of an Oxford education. And while she struggles with Latin, Jenny is an excellent student in every other subject, a particular credit to her austere-seeming English teacher, Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams). Jenny even plays cello in the school youth orchestra because her dad insists that Oxford favors students who cultivate a hobby.
It’s because she’s stranded out in the rain with her cello one day that Jenny accepts a ride home with David (Peter Sarsgaard), a gentlemanly stranger in his 30s driving a sleek maroon Bristol roadster. Soon, he’s sending her flowers, appearing outside her neighborhood chip shop, and inviting her to a Ravel concert in the city. Jenny is sure her folks will never allow it, but David persuades them with his responsible demeanor and an innocent lie. Before long, Jenny is cutting classes to hang out with David, his arty friend Danny (Dominic Cooper), and Danny’s glamorous girlfriend, Helen (Rosamund Pike).
Jenny is thrilled to know people who talk about art and music and cinema, although surprised that the decorative Helen doesn’t care about such things. (Helen thinks university makes girls “spotty and ugly.”) But sweet-natured Helen lends Jenny sheath dresses and beehives her hair for their excursions out—which soon include weekend trips to Oxford, and even Paris. As David ingratiates himself with Jenny’s parents with more audacious lies, the dazzled Jenny embraces this exciting new life, to the scandalized delight of her girlfriends, and the despair of Miss Stubbs and the school’s frosty headmistress (the great Emma Thompson) on the eve of finals.
But the film stumbles over the ease with which David sidles into Jenny’s parents’ good graces. Sarsgaard is not a naturally irresistible charmer; as David, his compliments are of the oily, Eddie Haskell variety, and his emotional palette seems studied and insincere from the get-go. Yes, Jenny’s folks are provincial, but it’s impossible to buy that either her wise mother or blustery father would allow their underage daughter to go off overnight with this much older guy, just because he butters them up. What exactly do they think his intentions are?
A later, at least partial explanation of her father’s complex motivations redeems this plot lapse somewhat, and provides the drama with a poignant father-daughter encounter. What Jenny expects from David remains a bit problematic. Longing for sophistication, she’s impressed when David respects her decision to postpone sex until she’s ready (in a fine scene, in which she instructs him not to talk baby-talk, and act like a grown-up). But quelling her own misgivings over David’s shadier antics feels more like a plot device than an honest response. Nevertheless, Mulligan’s pitch-perfect rendering of both eager youth and rueful wisdom— along with an excellent supporting cast—keeps the film on point. AN EDUCATION ★★1/2 (out of four)
With Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, and Olivia Williams. Written by Nick Hornby. From the memoir by Lynn Barber. Directed by Lone Scherfig. A Sony Classics release. Rated PG-13. 95 minutes.