Let’s get this right out of the way: Carey Mulligan is the real thing. Sure, you loved Meryl Streep as Julia Child in Julie & Julia, a part that is bound to earn the veteran actress her 16th Oscar nomination, but it’s this sparkling young newcomer who might take home the statue. Just 22 when she filmed her role as Jenny, the clever ingénue on the cusp of adulthood who anchors this effortless 1960s drama from Danish director Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners; Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself), Mulligan might well remind you of Audrey Hepburn more than 50 years ago in Roman Holiday.
|An Education | Directed by Lone Scherfig | Written By Nick Hornby, based on a memoir by Lynne Barber | with Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Rosamund Pike, Dominic Cooper, Alfred Molina, Emma Thompson, and Cara Seymour | Sony Pictures Classics | 97 minutes|
But 16-year-old schoolgirl Jenny’s not a princess — though her adoring lower-middle-class Twickenham parents, Jack (Alfred Molina, another highpoint in an exceptionally well-cast film) and Marjorie (Cara Seymour), wouldn’t mind if she decided to forgo higher education and marry into a charmed life. That idea prompts her to challenge her stern, conservative father: “That’s the point of an Oxford education, isn’t it, Dad? An expensive alternative to a dinner party?”
It wasn’t always this way. Jenny would have continued at the top of her class, exposing her deeply dimpled smile as she balances books atop her head, casually speaking French while struggling with Latin (who doesn’t?), if she hadn’t found herself caught in a rainstorm after leaving school-orchestra practice one afternoon. And were it not for the oversized instrument case, David (Peter Sarsgaard, good despite a weak British accent), a Jewish businessman and “music lover” more than twice her age, might never have pulled over. “Look, if you had any sense, you wouldn’t accept an offer of a ride from a stranger,” offers the charming knight in a Bristol roadster, uttering dialogue that could only be the work of Nick Hornby (the High Fidelity writer who has expanded the eight-page memoir journalist Lynn Barber penned for Granta magazine). He adds, “I’d hate to see your cello getting wet.”
A graduate of the University of Life (“I didn’t get a very good degree, though”), David is happy to feed Jenny’s desire to “meet people who know lots about lots.” Jack and Marjorie are also seduced by the “Jew,” who cajoles them into allowing him to escort their daughter to a Ravel concert followed by “a spot of supper.” That leads to a trip to Oxford and, ultimately, a weekend getaway (and, yes, a controversial one in light of the age difference) to Paris in celebration of her 17th birthday. David might hate to see Jenny’s cello get wet, but he doesn’t mind if his organ does. She’s thoughtful afterward: “All that poetry, and all those songs, about something that lasts no time at all.”
Scherfig avoids most of the pitfalls of the coming-of-age genre. She falters slightly with the conclusion, but her tight direction coupled with Hornby’s screenplay, the wonderful performances (don’t overlook Olivia Williams as a concerned teacher), the lush cinematography, and the pre-swinging-’60s production design makes An Education worth studying.