The emotional maturity of a sheltered teen in post-war austerity Britain is thoroughly tested in An Education, Lone Scherfig's vivacious, boldly elemental adaptation of journalist Lynn Barber's unsparing memoir of her formative years. In the post-Absolute Beginners society of 1961 London, where suited dandies in coffee shops bask in a fast-maturing mod culture, precocious 16-year-old Jenny (a bewitching Carey Mulligan) is an outsider enviously peeking in but powerless to shake loose the strictures enforced by her aspirational middle-class parents; they see education as the business of elocution lessons and Latin homework, and hold no opinion on more sensual mind-enrichments like the French blues and Burne-Jones art that hold sway over Jenny. Picked up by the side of the road one rainy day by David (Peter Sarsgaard), a seemingly good Samaritan in a showboat car who expresses concern about her dampening cello, Jenny is soon being regularly chauffeured into a vibrant, almost-swinging London of foreign cinemas, art museums, and after-dinner society. Her dazzlement and uncertain footing in these adult environs is deftly demonstrated in a remarkable supper club scene, where she's the guest and curio of David, as well as his inscrutable friend Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Danny's dimbulb girlfriend Helen (Mulligan's Pride and Prejudice co-star Rosamund Pike, working hard to play dumb). A whirl of sumptuous appointments and beautiful people set the intoxicating mood, while the light conversation allows for an extended focus on a near-bursting with excitement Jenny; her tremulous smile and glistening eyes complement the visual splendor of it all, while from the nearby stage a chanteuse belts out a torch song that deliberately echoes the Juliette Greco records spun in Jenny's bedroom solitude, the result being a convincing appeal for face-to-face engagement with life over settling for a canned experience.
Having rejected out of hand the ordered life on offer from her school's humorless head mistress (a clenched Emma Thompson) and all but told her marm-ish English teacher (Olivia Williams) to drop dead, Jenny rushes headlong into what she imagines will be a life of solidarity with like-minded cosmopolitans seeking to tear down the scaffolding of drab, conventional society, not unlike the pre-Raphaelite group of painters she tends to namedrop when not peppering conversation with French phrases. However, the preference expressed by David and company for collecting over admiring art is an early disappointment and an indicator of her fraternal twinge being misplaced; a visit to an auction house even turns into a macho game, with showoff David empowering and cajoling Jenny to place bids on his behalf, intoxicating her with the thrill of money instead of art. His lesson in the pleasures of bargaining reconvenes in the bedroom, where he agrees to her arbitrary choice to hold onto her virginity until 17, while still negotiating a peek at her breasts, a sordid and juvenile exchange that again hints at the paucity of true feeling between them; his insistence on assigning nicknames for each of them ("Minnie" for her and "Buble-up" for him) is especially galling, with Jenny seeming to mirror the audience's gag-reflex suppression.
Education's central love affair is to be between Jenny and her idealized self-image as an urban cosmopolitan, while David is never closer than on the periphery of her fantasy or her feelings. The personal mystery he works to stoke by deflecting questions about his background (his college was the "university of life" he tells her) holds little appeal for her, with the same going for the opaque business interests that compel him to run strange errands suggestive of a slumlord, such as when he meets a family of black Britons on a street corner to let them into their new flat, while building tenants peep down nervously from high windows. "Schwartzes have to live somewhere," he informs Jenny, her flushed cheeks registering a dawning awareness of the potential chasm between his sophistication and his decency.
Mulligan's performance is a thing of understated beauty, instinctively attuned to that headstrong-but-full-hearted quality common to the most aware teenagers, alight with choices in emotional keys both unexpected and resonant, and ultimately successful enough on its own terms to render superfluous the associative endorsement that Scherfig offers by way of a predictable makeover-revelation moment, in which the frumpy, pale-faced student is reintroduced as a radiant Holly GoLightly. That Mulligan's excess of talent occasionally throws light onto groaningly conventional aspects of Education's storyline is perhaps inevitable, though noticeable, particularly in scenes opposite her stiff upper-lip father (Alfred Molina) and mother (Cara Seymour) which sway unpredictably from broad comedy to indulgent melodrama. Theirs is almost a self-contained B-story unaffected by the main action.
A more successful supporting character is Pike's cabalistic Helen, whose blank expressions directed at Jenny tend to drift into telling daggers aimed at her male companions and who, though sisterly on the surface, remains sufficiently unmoved by the charming kid to not warn her away from their destructive company. Part of what's being concealed here is a penny ante crime racket, with a petty property scam here and the theft of a valuable antique there (Jenny is bluntly told to shut up by the normally gregarious Danny when pushing too hard into that one), but the larger disappointment that's finally arrived at in this affecting personal enlightenment drama is the extent to which even life-lovers and art-lovers are found by our heroine to not be immune to taking monstrous advantage of the uneducated and the easily trusting. That a bright light such as Jenny is found unlikely to remain either for long stands as the film's resigned exhale of a denouement.