Ostensibly there are two types of educations—of the school and life variety. And as Lone Scherfig’s often luscious-looking and sentimental An Education proposes, one often comes at the expense of the other. Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a very bright, 16-year-old Oxford hopeful in 1960s England. Her life is governed by English papers and interminable Latin translations as well as by her strict curmudgeon of a father (Alfred Molina). One day, while standing outside in a downpour, Jenny meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), a wealthy, worldly 30-some-year-old man who charms his way into her life, offering schooling of the life variety: love, sex, trips, presents, and nightclubs. And so, of course, the film boils down to having to choose between the hard work and boredom of school or the fun and thrills of David. By the end, all is resolved somewhat predictably, all the appropriate lessons learned and tied up in a bow.
The Oscar buzz surrounding Mulligan made me scrutinize the details of her performance all the more. She is wholly deserving of the accolades. When Jenny tells David in a soft hush that she believes no one in the whole of Britain has ever done anything except for him, she strikes the perfect aching chord of naïveté and utmost sincerity. Watch her eyes and the corners of her mouth—even if Jenny didn’t speak a word of dialogue you would still know exactly how she feels. It’s one of those spot-on performances where the line between actor and character becomes invisible. Mulligan is Jenny.
The whole cast deserves praise as well, especially Olivia Williams as Jenny’s dowdy English teacher and Rosamund Pike as the girlfriend of David’s friend (she contorts her face into the most wonderfully vacuous expressions any time she’s around anything that could be qualified as intellectual). And of course, there’s Peter Saarsgard. I could spend a day watching this man butter bread and not be bored. He’s always enigmatic with something bubbling underneath the surface, be it kindness or malice. And in this case, the underlying core of David’s charisma is in fact childlike fumbling. Note how extraordinarily awkward he is at bedroom seduction.
For the most part the film is well timed, but there are a few moments that the script rushes through, such as the ending, and when David first meets Jenny’s parents. It is not surprising that Jenny, although book-smart, is still young and wide-eyed enough to fall easily for David’s charms. But what about her stern and controlling father who nearly has a heart attack when there are merely flowers left for her on the doorstep? David wins over both of her parents with what, presumably, is his radiating worldliness and a facile compliment: “You, didn’t tell me you had a sister, Jenny.” I realize that this is set in the ’60s, but that line would have been hackneyed even by Ancient Egyptian standards. But no, that’s all it takes, and it’s suddenly “yes young man twice my daughter’s age, please take her on a night on the town.” It all just seems a little hurried.
An Education doesn’t add anything new to the coming-of-age genre, but aside from some minor script botches, this film totally wraps you in its earnestness and warmth. And your heart effectively aches for Jenny—at least mine did—as she grapples with life and its inevitable highs and lows.
Veronika Ferdman is a student at USC, earning BA’s in Philosophy and Critical Studies-Film.