An Education is set in 1960s suburban London and tells the story of a teenage girl whose life is changed when she falls in love with an older man. Adapted from a memoir, the film is directed by Lone Scherfig and written by Nick Hornby. Hornby, of course, is probably best known for his novels High Fidelity and About A Boy — both of which were adapted for film.
Jenny (played by Carey Mulligan) is a bright 16-year old girl who dreams of escaping her seemingly mundane existence. Pressured by her father to achieve the grades that would get her into Oxford, Jenny is underwhelmed by her one-track life. Jenny’s life becomes more exciting when she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), who introduces her to a world of classical concerts, fancy dinners and decadent vacations. Jenny is also introduced to David’s friends, Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike), whose lives she covets. Even Jenny’s parents (played by Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) are seduced by David’s charm. Ultimately though, David’s charm is not enough to hide his failings, and Jenny struggles to repair the damage he’s done.
The story itself is nothing new, but the writing, and in particular, the acting, elevate this film to near-brilliance. Carey Mulligan, who plays the title character, is mesmerizing in her role. Full of grace and charisma Mulligan keeps Jenny from becoming a character that the audience simply pities. Peter Sarsgaard’s portrayal of David is creepily charming without making him the villain of the film. The supporting cast is equally good, in particular Alfred Molina as Jenny’s father, Jack. Both David and Jack are characters that could easily have been one-dimensional, but the actors transform these men into real, flawed characters, with whom the audience is able to identify, if only in some small way.
Although the story is set in the 1960s, it has as much relevance today. Jenny is struggling with what her life will become and who she will be. At one point she asks her headmistress (played by Emma Thompson), “If we are all going to die the moment we graduate, isn’t it what is before that counts?” Jenny struggled with the idea that at some point she, like everyone else, must settle down and accept a predictable and mundane life.
The only thing that keeps this film from brilliance is its ending. While the rest of the film escapes the clichés of a familiar story, the ending doesn’t quite measure up. Jenny’s story is wrapped in a neat little package, while avoiding the film’s earlier sentiments about life and responsibility. At a brisk 95 minutes running time, An Education would have benefited from an extra 15 minutes of struggle and self-reflection from its heroine. Nevertheless, the good far outweighs the bad and the film — even the acting alone — is worth the ticket price.
* out of **