Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a middle-class sweet sixteen in 1961 England. She smokes cigarettes with an affected posture, drops French into casual conversations, escapes through Francophile songbirds on the hi-fi and longs for an adulthood just past her parent's (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) unceasing pressures for her to get into Oxford. Then one day she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard) a silver-tongued older man with a nifty car, sophisticated friends, and the means to make her fantasy a reality. With her otherwise strict dad & mum manipulated blindly into submission and her friends living vicariously through her whirlwind 'education', Jenny embarks on a treacherous voyage towards the life she thought she'd only ever dream of, without a lifeboat, without an anchor.
Yet, An Education is no Lolita. Jenny is dazzled by David and he dotes on her in a way that's more charming than creepy. He showers her with gifts, with champagne, small talk, and impromptu trips to Paris. He allows her to take her time getting to know him. While their relationship lacks the chemistry needed to make An Education the horribly romantic film every bookworm anglophile girl wants it to be, it's perhaps for the better. The film uses the relationship as a catalyst for Jenny's repressed teenage rebellion. She's too analytical to get swept up in something truly passionate, and the relationship feeds off of her own desire to live, and her eagerness to experience as much as possible. Carey Mulligan gives a subtle, starmaking performance that captures her character's conflicts, excitement, and heartbreak perfectly. She oscillates wildly between a refined Leslie Caron (yes, I'd disagree with all the comparisons to Audrey Hepburn, she lacks the requisite enthusiasm) on the night they invented champagne, and a smart alecky, disappointed schoolgirl. Even as Jenny makes foolish decisions and bad judgment calls, she does so with a joie de vivre that makes her seem brave instead of stupid. Sarsgaard, too, plays David with the requisite hint of devilry, but makes him likable. He's not a predator so much as a man repeatedly making the mistakes Jenny is making for the first time. Together, they're less infatuated with each other than with the idea of what being with the other, being in love, means.
Director Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners) and screenwriter Nick Hornby have made a lovely, fairly light adaptation of journalist Lynn Barber's memoir. While the world has its fair share of cautionary tales of young ladies falling into the traps of older gentlemen, and An Education is certainly one of them, the film never quite takes the turns you expect when you expect them. David and his high living friends Danny and Helen (Dominic Cooper and a brilliantly vacant Rosamund Pike) manage to obscure their true natures as the film twists, turns, and jet sets. The conventional format of the film is there, but not immediately obvious. Jenny, eagerly along for the ride, is equally mercurial, and at times it's unclear whether or not she understands the risks involved, or if the realizations the audience slowly receives are fully veiled from her as well. In the end, it doesn't matter. Jenny's education, while it careens towards detrimental, is an experiment in worldliness.
Admittedly, it's perhaps because of this imposed distance that I couldn't shake the feeling of being less involved in the events of the film than I ought to be. Without a dangerous passion, or any real chemistry, the film tiptoes around the darker elements of the material it puts forth. Jenny, though she plays at being so, is not fully in control of her situation. When word gets out of her philandering, the headmistress (Emma Thompson) of the stuffy all girls school she attends seeks to eliminate the risk of one bad apple spoiling the bunch. She succeeds. When propositioned by a man with an overflowing bank account, Jenny's parents seem to lose focus on their dreams for their daughter's education. It doesn't matter anymore so long as she's provided for. The social commentary on postwar England and the drawbacks of the time period are there, but underdeveloped. While Jenny's teacher Miss Stubbs (Olivia Cross, minus Max Fischer) fights for her future, the film sidesteps dramatic tension and difficult material for paltry distraction. Ultimately, while An Education is compelling, it's not quite as smart as it could, or should, be.
As a coming of age story, however, it's delightfully refined. Though its make-up is pure melodrama, An Education remains afloat on something that's not quite comedy, not quite nostalgia, but feels close enough. See it for the performances and the entertainment value, don't expect a masterpiece.
3.5 out of 5
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