A star is born. She is 24 years old, English, a relative newcomer and the best thing about one of the best independent films of the year. Her name is Carey Mulligan and, with awards season around the corner, it’s one you can expect to hear a lot.
Mulligan is the centerpiece of An Education, the smart, witty, meticulously observed story of a precocious 16-year-old with dreams of escaping life in a dreary London suburb by gaining admission to Oxford. Or, more accurately, with parents who dream of improving her social standing by sending her to Oxford.
The year is 1961. Jenny attends a strict all-girls school where she aces her courses. She fantasizes with friends about someday living in Paris, where she’ll “smoke, wear black and listen to Jacques Brel.” She has one Juliette Greco record, the lyrics to which she knows by heart, is fond of ending sentences with the phrase n’est-ce pas? and earns extra credit by playing in a student orchestra.
One drenched afternoon, she’s standing at a bus stop with her cello when a smiling man in his mid-thirties rolls down the window of his sports car. A music lover, he makes Jenny an offer she can’t refuse: Why not put her instrument in the car to protect it from the rain and walk home alongside but safely outside the vehicle?
So begins her life-altering association with the charming, worldly but mysterious David Goldman. Peter Sarsgaard puts on a British accent and turns in one of the most intriguing performances of his career. To the bored and culturally starved teenager, he appears a dream come true, and David, it’s clear from the start, has genuine feelings for Jenny, too. The first order of business, though, is seducing the girl’s parents.
They are rendered brilliantly by Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour. Initially, Molina’s character is all paternal sternness and bluster. He loves his daughter and has sacrificed to give her a shot at better things. When David stops by to introduce himself and request permission to take Jenny to a classical music concert, within minutes, her mother is enchanted and her father putty in his hands. With his pricey roadster, tailored suit and silver tongue, he effortlessly enlists the middle-class strivers as allies.
And, for a time, the older man does seem a sort of upper-class knight in shining armor. He introduces Jenny to the world of art auctions at Christie’s, to smoke-filled nightclubs, to the delights of Paris (yes, her parents even sign off on that one), and to his wealthy business partner (Dominic Cooper) and his stylish but clueless girlfriend (Rosamund Pike). You can see the rapture in Mulligan’s eyes. She’s such a winning force you find yourself hoping against hope that Goldman is the real deal and that, despite their age difference, they’ll somehow live happily, chicly ever after.
The screenplay is a bittersweet gem by the fine novelist Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy), directed with an unerring eye for period detail by Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig and adapted from a memoir by British journalist Lynn Barber. It offers a trenchant study of pre-Beatles London at its staidest and the limited opportunities for women at the time. Questioning the point of working night and day to make it to Oxford just so she can turn around and teach the same tiresome subjects she studied, Mulligan’s character speaks for a generation on the brink of revolution when she addresses the school’s headmistress (Emma Thompson): “This whole stupid country is bored. There’s no life in it, or color ... It’s not enough to educate us anymore. You’ve got to tell us why you’re doing it.”
As we learn in An Education, some truths are timeless: Girls just want to have fun, n’est-ce pas?