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Carey Mulligan as Jenny, far right, with Cara Seymour and Alfred Molina as her parents in the background: an appealing coming-of-age story.

4 out of 4 stars


An Education

  • Directed by Lone Scherfig
  • Written by Nick Hornby
  • Starring Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard
  • Classification: PG

Deceptive charm is both the subject and the method of An Education , a film which serves as a lesson in how to blend entertainment with provocative ideas. Directed with a light, brisk hand by Denmark's Lone Scherfig ( Italian for Beginners , Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself ), the Sundance prize-winning film is either a sugar-coated bitter pill, or perhaps the opposite.

An appealing coming-of-age story, the film features a radiant young actress, Carey Mulligan, as Jenny, a 16-year-old schoolgirl in a precisely evoked London, circa 1961. The city itself is on the verge of graduating from postwar austerity to the sixties' Carnaby Street carnival. Under its pretty surface, this is also a biting, morally ambiguous drama of a teenager who nearly throws her future away with a predatory con man, twice her age, with her status-obsessed parents' tacit approval.

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The story is based on a short memoir from English journalist Lynn Barber, published in the literary magazine Granta in the summer of 2003, in an issue dedicated to "lessons learned from the muddle of experience." The story was adapted by novelist and sometime screenwriter Nick Hornby ( About a Boy , High Fidelity ), who brings his characteristic wit and warmth to life's muddle, while avoiding obvious moralistic traps.

Liam Lacey on An Education Watch Globe film critic Liam Lacey's 60-second video reviews.

We first meet Jenny as the bored star pupil at a stuffy girls' school, who is obsessed with all things French and desperate to graduate from her blinkered lower-middle-class background into a world of intellectual and sensual freedom. As portrayed by the mercurial Mulligan (22 when she played the role), Jenny is a compelling bundle of contradictions, a plump-cheeked, giggling school girl one moment, and, the next, a throaty-voiced sophisticate, passing harsh judgment on grown-up weaknesses and hypocrisy.

While waiting to be sprung loose by a scholarship to Oxford University, Jenny finds her education in life jump-started by a chance encounter with a handsome stranger in a beautiful maroon Bristol car, who offers her a ride home to protect her cello from the rain. His name is David (Peter Sarsgaard, in a passable, flutey-sounding British accent). He's solicitous and funny, and eager to play the role of Jenny's mentor: "There's so much I want you to see," he says.

He invites her to a concert, then to an art auction. Though her parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) should be putting the brakes on this relationship, David manages to win them over as well, with his flattery and bribes. Pretending to be a friend of "Clive Lewis" (C.S. Lewis), he even persuades the parents to let him take Jenny for an overnight trip to Oxford for a look-see with his friends. They include his brooding business partner Danny (Dominic Cooper), who has at least half a qualm about David and Jenny's relationship, and Danny's fussily fashionable girlfriend, Helen (Rosamund Pike), who doesn't seem to be troubled by any thoughts at all.

When David tries to take the relationship to the next level, Jenny holds back, and David remains courtly and romantic. On the way back from Oxford, she learns more about his dubious business dealings, but by now she's in too deep, and having too much fun, to quit. Besides, she's revelling in her new status at school, handing out Russian cigarettes and acting far too worldly for the other girls and the dull teachers. Among them is Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams), a sadder-but-wiser type, who sees, and fears, the changes Jenny is going through.

Hornby is a fine craftsman and his dialogue sparkles, though occasionally the scenes are too calculated. There's a confrontation between Jenny and the school's imperious headmistress (Emma Thompson) in which both characters sound like mouth pieces for their generational attitudes. The headmistress's crude anti-Semitism may be plausible for the time and place, but it is so baldly expressed, it telegraphs her character's moral crudeness. In contrast, Jenny sounds like she must be listening to an earpiece from the future when she declares: "It's not enough to just educate us any more. You have to tell us why."

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The fact that David is Jewish complicates the emotional equation. Jenny can feel morally righteous in allying herself to a representative of a maligned minority, and turn a blind eye to his defects. An Education is, as the title suggests, about Jenny exploring her own desires and shortfalls, and it's too smart a film for easy answers. There is no textbook to describe the distinction between mischief and wrongdoing, romance and delusion, or between pretending to be wise and actually getting there.

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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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