An Education is based on the autobiographical memoir of Lynn Barber. Set in 1950, the story centers around 16 year-old Jenny Miller (Carey Mulligan) and her relationship with a charismatic older David Goldman gentleman caller (Peter Sarsgaard) who turns her world upside down.
What follows is a May/December romance that everyone sees happening, including Jenny, her teachers, and her parents (Alfred Molina, Cara Seymour), but no one can prevent.
Mulligan provides the heart of the film, and will no doubt recieve a fair amount of praise for her performance. Although I’d seen her in small roles as one of the Bennet sisters in Pride & Prejudice and one of my favorite Doctor Who episodes, I didn’t know she could carry the bulk of a quiet dramatic film on her own.
As good as she is, it’s Sarsgaard’s performance that I was most impressed with. There’s little to like about David, especially as the film slowly reveals more damaged layers of his character.
And though we desperately want Jenny to turn away from him, we never come to hate his character, nor do the other characters in the film, which given the circumstances is quite remarkable and a testament to Sarsgard himself. The amount of charm and emotion he puts into this cradle-robbing cad makes all the difference. Director Lone Scherfig makes sure we see both the charming visage Jenny falls for, and her parents adore, as well as deeply flawed human being underneath.
And the supporting cast is strong as well. Both Molina and Rosamund Pike provide deliciously funny moments by doing nothing more than stating obvious points from their characters’ point of view. And I wanted more of Olivia Williams as Jenny’s teacher, and the one person who never gives up on her.
Adapted by Nick Hornsby the film definitely has the feel of a memior, and, to be honest, is stuck with its limitations as well. We certainly see the world through the eyes of Jenny and live through her joys and mistakes. At the same time the film ends rather abrubtly, which I can only assume was a choice by Hornsby to follow the the lead of the memoir rather than contrive a more cinematic final act.
An Education is a nice quiet film you’ll no doubt have to search for. It’s not without its flaws (which include a rushed ending and puzzling final narration), but with an entire film filled with strong performances and an engaging story about a girl who is forced to make hard decisions far beyond her years, it’s one film you shouldn’t miss.