Several years ago, at the peak of the backlash against the movie Sideways, A. O. Scott wrote an essay for the New York Times in which he argued that critics overpraised the movie largely because the average critic is a schlubby, geeky, middle-aged man all too eager to buy into a story about a schlubby, geeky, middle-aged man who wins the heart of the luminous Virginia Madsen. I’ve heard similar insinuations about An Education, in which the luminous Carey Mulligan falls for a man nearly twice her age, but though I understood where Scott was coming from with regard to Sideways, the sneer at An Education mystifies me. The movie is not about the older man’s fantasy of seducing the younger woman; it’s about the younger woman’s fantasy of being seduced by the older man. If it flatters anyone, it’s not schlubby, middle-aged geeks but artsy, awkward young women who have more book-learning than life experience but who want desperately to change that. And yet An Education is not itself naïve. An elegant coming-of-age story, with a rare female protagonist, it walks the line between rosiness and darkness with grace and insight and a big heart.
Mulligan plays Jenny, a bright young woman slowly suffocating in the post-war, pre-Beatles suburbs of London. She is preparing to apply for university, but the opportunities that might allow her still seem elusive and faraway, so when she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), a charismatic bon vivant who takes her to concerts and nightclubs and opulent restaurants, she eagerly embraces the sudden expansion of her world—and turns a blind eye to David’s shady business dealings and murky personal details.
Loosely adapting a segment of journalist Lynn Barber’s memoir, screenwriter Nick Hornby creates Jenny’s bland world with vivid detail: the glamorous, much-loved French records she listens to when she should be studying; the excruciating tea with her parents and a perfectly nice, painfully adolescent teenage boy; her airs of pretension (constantly quoting French aphorisms, for example) that are at once put on and sincerely felt. This is a girl who genuinely loves Juliette Gréco and Ravel and the pre-Raphaelites, and no one in her life—not her parents, not her teachers—gives her any sense that these are to be valued for their own sake, not just as trivia to be crammed for her Oxford application. Is it any wonder that she responds to David when he worries extravagantly about her cello?
Sarsgaard’s performance, from that very first scene, is absolutely brilliant. His David is charming, ingratiating, but unctuous, too, and not as unflappable as Jenny initially thinks. His smile curdles; his poise splinters; there’s a neediness about him that betrays the image he tries to project. He isn’t a predator so much as a rather pathetic man drawn to a young woman who possesses the resolve and openness and potential that he himself lacks.
The rest of the cast is similarly strong. Dominic Cooper plays David’s friend Danny as a shrewd man unpleasantly surprised by his own scruples, and Rosamund Pike is hilariously airy as Danny’s girlfriend, Helen. Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour ably handle the contradictions in Jenny’s loving but misguided parents, the always superb Emma Thompson delivers a coolly imperturbable performance as the school headmistress, and Olivia Williams gives Jenny’s dedicated but dispirited English teacher such dignity and understated soulfulness that I left the theater wanting to know more about her Miss Stubbs.
But Carey Mulligan is unquestionably the star. Her Jenny is a wonderfully compelling hero: smart and enchanting and self-possessed, but also reckless and duplicitous and snobby. As taken as she is with the life David gives her, she doesn’t completely fall for him; she loses sight of some of her goals but never completely loses herself. And the “loss” of her virginity isn’t really a loss. No abstinence-pushing treacle here—An Education is far too forthright for that. As Jenny moves across the innocence-and-experience spectrum, she has to open her eyes and stake out who she wants to be on an uneasy terrain, but she handles these challenges with growing maturity. She is, after all, coming of age. Though the headmistress might imply otherwise, Jenny is not ruined—and as portrayed by the thoughtful, nuanced Mulligan we couldn’t imagine that she is.