There have been many movies about older men seducing younger women — but few so beguiling as “An Education.”
That’s because the film is about a number of other age-old stories, too: The choice women sometimes must make between learning and a career on one hand and marriage on the other; finding one’s own way in life versus following friends and family; and the moment when one realizes that another person can and will hurt you. This serious film handles them all with intelligence, yet never fails to charm.
Based on a memoir published in Granta magazine by British journalist Lynn Barber and adapted by novelist Nick Hornby, “An Education” is a taut coming-of-age tale, but with a more authentic feel than most. Jenny (Carey Mulligan), as the author has been rechristened, is a suburban London schoolgirl in 1961. She’s on the cusp of life, and so is her time — opportunities for women are beginning to open up, and the sexual revolution is just around the corner.
Jenny has led a sheltered life; her single-minded father (Alfred Molina) doesn’t offer her anything that won’t get her into Oxford. She is simply dying for experiences, and her chance comes one rainy day when a man twice her age offers her a ride home in his Bristol.
David (Peter Sarsgaard) is handsome, monied and interesting. He soon introduces Jenny to the creme de la creme — food, wine, music, art. She never questions how this mysterious man is able to live the high life, but she soon wonders whether she wants to give it up to get a rather more musty education at Oxford.
“An Education” is winning in every way. Miss Mulligan — now regularly described as the “It Girl” — is a talented young woman who can ooze innocence one moment, seem world-weary the next, and is bewitching each time. The underrated Mr. Sarsgaard is very charming and sometimes surprisingly innocent himself.
The supporting cast is top-notch, too: Olivia Williams is the more-worldly-than-she-looks teacher, Dominic Cooper is David’s suave friend, and Rosamund Pike is his glamorous blond girlfriend. Mr. Molina as the social-climbing father regularly steals the show, probably because he’s given the best lines. Even the smallest roles are filled by the finest — Emma Thompson has a few scenes as a concerned headmistress, while Sally Hawkins has just one as a woman who serves as a warning.
It’s Lone Scherfig’s subtle direction and Mr. Hornby’s thoughtful script that make “An Education” such an interesting film, though. The best life is a lived life, they seem to argue — and an education doesn’t seem so fulfilling to Jenny’s lonely teachers, who get only cold comfort from the knowledge they’ve devoted their lives to passing on. In fact, the filmmakers are so convincing on the subject of the title that the ending comes as a bit of a letdown.
TITLE: “An Education”
RATING: PG-13 (mature thematic material involving sexual content, and smoking)
CREDITS: Directed by Lone Scherfig. Written by Nick Hornby based on a memoir by Lynn Barber.
RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes
WEB SITE: sonyclassics.com/aneducation
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS
By Douglas Holtz-Eakin
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