An Education, a beautifully acted coming-of-age story, has been receiving rave reviews ever since it graced the festival circuit, first at Sundance, then at Telluride and Toronto. Some of the adulation has been in response to an exceptionally smart performance from actress Carey Mulligan, a 24-year-old who plays 16-year-old Jenny, a schoolgirl whose life thus far has been devoted to getting into Oxford. Jenny, who studies and plays the cello, has been forced into the adolescent equivalent of resume building.
But Jenny isn't entirely at ease with the plan for her future. She loves French music and culture, and would like to veer off a path that, in her view, leads to some sort of spiritual suffocation: teaching in a girls' school, a dead-end civil service job, maybe a joyless marriage. The movie takes place in 1961, a time when options for women were more limited and the counterculture hadn't begun to burst the bubbles of tradition.
As played by Mulligan, Jenny is like a flower that's ready to bloom, but can't find the right soil in which to take root. Her mother (Cara Seymour) is a suburban housewife who hasn't entirely lost her spark, and her father (Alfred Molina) is money-conscious and fearful, a man who insists on his daughter's conformity. He doesn't want her to be educated in any meaningful way; he wants her middle-class ticket punched.
Jenny's life changes when she meets David, an older man played by Peter Sarsgaard, an actor of who knows how to create appealing characters with hints of moral turpitude around the edges. Is David kind and cultured or is he a 30something guy on the prowl for young flesh? Could he be both? Jewish and worldly, David introduces Jenny to the kinds of activities about which she previously only dreamed. He takes her to classical concerts and to nightclubs. He charms her and her parents, too. He even arranges for Jenny to accompany him on a trip to Paris.
David starts slowly, even innocently, but eventually he carries on a totally inappropriate romantic relationship with a young woman who's impressionable, yes, but also eager to enjoy what David offers. Jenny likes watching David dupe her parents with a variety of stories that make two otherwise sensible people abandon sound judgment -- Mom because she wants Jenny to experience things she never could and Dad because David seems to offer financial security and maybe even a way out of spending a fortune on Jenny's education.
David also introduces Jenny to his friends, the equally worldly Danny (Dominic Cooper) and the beautiful but happily ignorant Helen (Rosamund Pike). We also meet one of Jenny's teachers (Olivia Williams), as well as the headmistress of her school (Emma Thompson), a woman so proper she seems to have turned brittle. She's also anti-Semitic.
The movie's director, Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners and Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself) is a refugee from the Dogme 95 movement that was in vogue a few years back. She and screenwriter Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) succeed in keeping the movie entertaining and breezy, despite the obvious impropriety of David's behavior. But I think they copped-out with an ending -- more of an epilogue really -- that's way too pat.
No one would (or should) endorse David's predatory behavior, but did my mind deceive me? At the end were Scherfig and Hornby waving a banner for the good old British status quo? Only the strength and ingenuity of Mulligan's performance gave me hope that Jenny had a chance of being as interesting at 28 as she was at 16.