“I’m going to Paris, and I’m going to smoke and wear black and listen to Jacques Brel,” announces schoolgirl Jenny (Carey Mulligan) early on in Lone Scherfig’s An Education—a funny, touching, often extremely wise coming-of-age story set in the drab middle-class world of 1961 England, where such ideas as the ones she puts forth were radical and chic. This was pre-Beatles and very much pre-“Swinging London.” This was a world in which it seemed very likely that even the people doing the voices for children’s puppet shows on the BBC were wearing formal dinner clothes. It was also a world that was just itching to explode into something new, and though she doesn’t know it, Jenny is part of that explosion.
It’s this world and Jenny’s place in it that Scherfig’s film—with the help of novelist Nick Hornby’s screenplay and a startling performance from Carey Mulligan—explores with keen insight, and not a hint of condescension. It’s that last that makes An Education a pretty special film. Very few films that take a look at an earlier, more repressive time seem to be able to resist making that world and its inhabitants more quaint and naive than they were. An Education manages to miss this pitfall at absolutely every turn.
Jenny’s story begins when a thirtysomething charmer named David (Peter Sarsggard) spies her walking in the rain with her cello. Pulling up in his Bristol sports car, he offers not her a life—that would be improper—but her cello, since he’s a music lover and hates the thought of it getting wet. Naturally enough, 16-year-old Jenny immediately succumbs to the attentions of this well-spoken, clever, handsome man with the unusual—and far from drab—car and the candor to own up to the impropriety of his attentions and the fact that he’s Jewish. Even the viewer is disarmed by him, but—and this is what raises the film another notch—neither Jenny nor we are quite taken in. Jenny may be being victimized, but she’s not a victim—except of her era. She’s so starved for color and sophistication that she’s not going to examine its authenticity too closely when it appears to arrive.
The same is true—in a much quieter way—of her parents, Jack (Alfred Molina) and Marjorie (Cara Seymour, The Savages), both of whom are charmed by David for various reasons. Jack likes him because he’s amusing, does credible impressions of Goon Show characters, and offers the illusion of respectability. Marjorie is drawn to his sophistication and the fact that he recalls a time when the world held promise and her own life wasn’t bound by suburban domesticity. Jenny, on the other hand, watches in increasingly knowing fascination as David skillfully manipulates her parents into believing that her going out with him is an acceptable thing—though, of course, it isn’t.
The film shrewdly follows the relationship between Jenny and David, peeling away both their facades a little at a time. Neither is quite who they seem. On occasion, Jenny seems more mature than David, and as the film—and Mulligan’s performance—discloses that there’s a woman inside this schoolgirl, there’s also a schoolgirl inside that woman. A good deal of this works because of Mulligan, who deserves every accolade and Audrey Hepburn comparison she’s received for her performance. She’s perfectly capable of transforming into a sophisticated woman during the course of the film, but she’s also capable of reverting to the schoolgirl.
This a warm, winning little film that observes nearly all its characters with sympathy—even when the cards are finally all on the table. The manner in which An Education looks at its characters and their motives—without ever spelling out those motives—is unusual in its subtlety. You wonder for a moment why Jenny doesn’t ask certain questions, and then you realize that she doesn’t want certain answers. Funny, touching, but never goopy in the least, this is one of the year’s small gems. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving sexual content and for smoking.