What a mixed blessing that Carey Mulligan’s stardom should begin here, with the transitory pleasure of an awards-season dido, veiled in the nostalgic mist of inevitable Audrey Hepburn associations and other more current modes of media infatuation. Certainly Mulligan wears the burden well, carrying “An Education” without hoarding it, and giving off enough dimpled radiance and girlish poise to indulge our fantasy that this furtively conventional coming-of-age period piece, about a teenager’s eye-opening romance with a much older man, be anything but common.
As essential as Mulligan is to “An Education”’s charm, so is her given milieu: Britain, 1961, in tentative transition from shattered war ruin to swinging pop-culture concourse. The movie depends on our willingness to furbish any given tale of that transition with every benefit of our doubt. To that end, it helps having the lightly fictionalized adaptation of journalist Lynn Barber’s memoir handled so economically by director Lone Scherfig (”Italian for Beginners”), who prefers this education remain unsentimental, and screenwriter Nick Hornby, of “High Fidelity” and “About a Boy” fame, with his usual shrewd understanding of pop palatability. Although “An Education” reportedly is not Barber’s proudest book (that would be “How to Improve Your Man In Bed”), she credits the affair it describes as a career-essential experience: That first trade of innocence for skepticism became a kind of foundation for the take-no-prisoners interviewing style by which she’s known as “the Demon Barber” in Britain today.
We are not to pity her. Mulligan’s “Jenny,” a 16-year-old aspiring sophisticate of London’s suburban middle-class, is promptly revealed as the most alert girl in her school, who also has the very good fortune to be the prettiest. Jenny’s parents, Jack (Alfred Molina) and Majorie (Cara Seymour), have determined–and indeed overdetermined–that she’s bound for Oxford. The question is whether she’s bound to it. What exactly are her options?
Chief among the noticers of Jenny’s potential is one David Goldman (Peter Sarsgaard), a somehow vulnerably suave man of approximately twice her age who spies her standing in the rain with her cello one day, motors over in his little maroon Bristol, and agilely offers her a lift. Then he agilely offers a whirlwind of concerts, fine dining, art auctions, and trips to Paris — absolute manna for a girl who calls her homeland a “stupid country” more than once and peppers her conversations with enough bons mots to make it apparent that she might just rather be French.
Biding his time, David (or Sarsgaard, at least) wears his politesse like a mask. Initially he lets it be known only that he’s Jewish, that he has money, and taste, and intent — and that he understands how to play Jack and Majorie’s class envy to his own advantage. We wonder uneasily what it means that being with such a shady fellow so clearly lights Jenny up. But remember, this is a time and a place where ominous, omnipresent barriers of ethnicity and gender exacerbate the already thorny adolescent melodrama of yearning for social mobility. And so we also find ourselves rooting for her, on behalf of her entire generation, to mature into a symbol of self-determined liberation.
Jenny has a range of circumstantially limited (and brilliantly acted) female role models to choose from, including a weary teacher (Olivia Williams) who believes in her; a priggish headmistress (Emma Thompson) who doesn’t; a glamorous but self-consciously less clever friend of David’s (Rosamund Pike); and of course Majorie, who drops tactful hints of her own erstwhile hopes and their eventual resignation. Scherfig manages mostly to keep her distance from the direct question of whether class can be taught, or bought. And she reasonably seems to want to avoid framing Jenny’s transformative experience as a straightforward journey from the promise of precocity into the weariness of wisdom.
But something about the film’s denouement is self-betraying nonetheless. Is it the beginning of real wisdom, or of too-tidy movie contrivance, when Jenny discovers her teacher to be living among “paperbacks and postcards,” those presumed signifiers of déclassé sophistication, and says, “That’s all you need, isn’t it?” That, apparently, and a “studying montage” in the last act.
Or maybe it’s just the poignancy of Mulligan’s feasibly Hepburnesque refusal to dignify disenchantment. She pulls it off so fetchingly that we can only wonder what her future holds, and whether she’ll ever be allowed to graduate from our nostalgic ideal.