Lone Scherfig’s An Education is certainly that for the film’s central figure, Jenny (newcomer Carey Mulligan), a gifted student from the London suburb of Twickenham who dreams of studying English at Oxford University. It’s 1961, and Jenny is the product of well-meaning parents (played by Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) who want nothing but the best for their witty, uncommonly poised 16-year-old daughter.
So apparently does David, a suave, sophisticated thirtysomething with a snazzy car who offers to drive Jenny home from school so her cello doesn’t get ruined by the rain. They engage in flirty small talk wherein she wastes no time telling him of her intentions. “When I go to university, I’m going to read what I want and listen to what I want, and I’m going to look at paintings and watch French films and going to talk to people who know lots about lots,” she says, her adorably dimpled face beaming with anticipation.
Their mutual admiration is immediately palpable, and it’s not long before the rakish David whisks Jenny away to classical music performances, to hip nightclubs and even a trip to Paris with his friends Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike). It’s all so intoxicating to a middle-class girl (and her cautious but equally smitten parents) with big dreams, so much so that Jenny contemplates forgoing her beloved Oxford to “live a real life.”
Based on the memoir of British journalist Lynn Barber and adapted for the screen by novelist Nick Hornby, An Education is effective on a variety of levels, none more obvious than Mulligan, a charming 24-year-old British actress with the face of an angel and the emotive skills and screen presence of a star in the making. And while the tidy, conventional finale nearly undermines the nuanced portrait of a woman on the verge that precedes it, An Education is a perceptive, entertaining tale that somehow makes the idea of higher learning seem not just worthwhile but also essential. Grade: B-plus
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