Many have come close, but An Education is the first film this year to grab me by the lapel and whisk me along with its characters, to make me care so deeply about them that I was roiling with every emotional twist and turn its revelatory female lead goes through.
That lead character is played by the zestful Carey Mulligan, who has burst onto the cinematic stage as a fully formed ingénue in the mold of Audrey Hepburn or Dolores Costello. Jenny is a 16-year-old boarding-school bookworm in an early-1960s London that seems to be twiddling its thumbs in the days just before Beat music and mod fashion. Boredom is of particular concern for Jenny, as she lacks a clear answer to a very important question: Is it worse to throw away an esteemed education by settling down, or to see the world but risk being broken in two? Along with her disturbingly youthful face, Jenny’s inability to conceive a third option – being her own woman – says as much about her age as it does about her suburban upbringing.
Her questions are brought to a boil when she’s picked up on the side of the road by David (Peter Sarsgaard), a sports-car-driving older man who longs to show Jenny the world beyond her borders, and much more. After David charms her parents, played with heartbreaking vulnerability and imperfection by Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour, he whisks her away to Oxford and Paris, to horse races and elegant concert halls. The fact that David is much older than Jenny puts up a guard on the audience’s part, but it’s not a concrete barrier that keeps her (or us) from having an intoxicatingly good time.
Eventually, of course, David’s facade must fall and with it the hopes and dreams that Jenny’s parents, and Jenny herself, hold for her. She may not have a great answer to her question – which, in the end, boils down to “Why should women try?” – but she can finally ask it with experience.
An Education scores on every level and for all the talent involved, from Danish former Dogme 95 director Lone Scherfig to Mulligan (who is sparking a Hollywood casting frenzy; she already has several high-profile films in the works) down to the sheepish schoolboy who loves Jenny. In that walk-on part, young actor Matthew Beard lights up the screen.
Special kudos goes to novice screenwriter Nick Hornby, an author whose books have tackled overgrown children (High Fidelity, About a Boy), sports (Fever Pitch), music, middle-aged women and skateboarding teen boys. With An Education, Hornby has proven that there is no demographic that he can’t mine for emotional truth and present as if he’s the first writer to have seen such a thing. He’s not, of course, but the feeling that he could be is as enabling and exhilarating as hopping in a car with Peter Sarsgaard.