With alternating emotions, subtle shifts and numerous layers, “An Education” is far more rich and complex and rewarding than one would think. After first viewing the trailer, I assumed it would be a melodrama filled with heartbreak and hand-wringing consequences, but the film is so much more than that…and so much better.
Based on the memoir by British journalist Lynn Barber, “An Education” chronicles her teenage affair with a man nearly 20 years her senior. In the capable hands of Denmark’s Lone Scherfig (“Italian for Beginners”), this film takes flight and becomes a delicate mix of emotions that never feels forced or unreasoned.
The story begins in 1961 with Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a bored teenager growing up in the dull London suburban of Twickenham. Jenny is passionate, curious and eager to burst out of her stilted day to day life. Her parents (Alfred Molina & Cara Seymour) meanwhile have their sights set on her acceptance into Oxford. They drill her constantly about her grades and her future. One day while walking home in the rain with her cello, David (Peter Sarsgaard), an attractive older man in his 30s offers her (or at least her cello) a ride home. He mentions that he is a music lover that she can walk alongside the car if it would make her more comfortable. He has a handsome face and an elegant Bristol sports car. Naturally, she can’t resist and eventually climbs in the car along with her cello. David is smooth, elegant, sophisticated but not in a slimy or creepy way. He is charming and always knows the right thing to say. He strikes up a relationship with Jenny and the seduction eventually becomes a multilayered one on both sides. Jenny’s parents are at first resistant, but David’s sincere way with words, generosity and seductive nature casts a spell on them. Meanwhile Jenny is being seduced not only by David, but his business partner Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Danny’s glamorous, shallow girlfriend Helen (Rosamund Pike).
David takes Jenny to concerts, auctions, drives in the country, shopping, nightclubs, elegant restaurants and even a weekend trip to Paris. Jenny longs for a worldly, sophisticated adult life and her relationship with David provides that and much more. It is an education for sure, just not the one her parents initially had in mind. Unable to keep her juicy affair a secret, she tells her classmates and word eventually reaches the headmistress (Emma Thompson) who gives her several stern lectures.
Carey Mulligan is a revelation in the role of Jenny and is sure to be one of the breakout stories of the year. She only has a few small roles on her resume including Kitty Bennett in the Keira Knightley starring film “Pride & Prejudice”. That will soon change. Her performance shows so many layers and depths and the subtle shifts in between. Her craving, yearning and excitement about life are so strong you can practically feel it radiating off the screen. The ever-reliable indie star Peter Sarsgaard is equally compelling in the role of David. His seemingly effortless charm and allure masks a man who is certainly not all what he seems to be. The script adaptation by Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity”) is also excellent as it navigates the emotional terrain of the story without being at all heavy handed or simplistic.
Ultimately, the heart of the film lies with Carey Mulligan who gives a performance that heralds the arrival of a great new talent. An Education is a well crafted, compelling film and so far one of the year’s best.