Based on British journalist Lynne Barber’s memoir, An Education is a beautifully observed story about a schoolgirl who has an affair with an older man.
Nick Hornby’s adaptation is note-perfect, as are the performances, and Danish director Lone Scherfig brings it all together with a delicate but firm, deft touch.
It’s 1961, virtually still the 1950s; it was a time when women found themselves in a peculiar position. Social expectation was still largely on the side of their being wives and mothers only, yet the countervailing pull towards higher education and other careers was growing in strength — as was the liberating force that beckoned them into greater sexual freedom.
Jenny (Carey Mulligan) exemplifies such conflicts. Her world is still ruled by her parents’ nervous conservatism, an instinctive tendency to clench, you might say, in the face of any disruptions of their mousy suburban life. But that conservatism also means they are ignorant, unworldly and easy prey for a suave bullshitter like David (Peter Sarsgaard).
He can practically seduce their 16-year-old daughter under their noses — and get their blessing while doing it. And yet he’s also more complex than a mere villain, and not entirely unsympathetic. Like Jenny, he too is pulled in conflicting directions.
The period is evoked with a lovely production design, from Jenny and her parents’ dowdy little home to the more expansive and glamorous environment inhabited by high-flyers such as David’s friends Danny and Helen (Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike). The clothes and the sounds do their jobs admirably too.
It’s the performances, though, that shine brightest. The leads are wonderful — Mulligan (in her first big role, nogal!) all feisty and lusty but confused girl-woman, Sarsgaard able to charm us even as we see through him. Cara Seymour and Alfred Molina are brilliant as Jenny’s mom and dad, and the smaller roles glitter too: Cooper, Pike particularly, and Emma Thompson, whose chilly headmistress, a tiny but important role, redeems her Brideshead Revisited misfire.
An Education is compelling, edgy, often sad, frequently very funny. It’s like an education all by itself.