An Education: Clever Like You
The Coens aren’t the only ones concerned with serious men. Jenny, the heroine of Lone Scherfig’s An Education, is also on the lookout for a serious man — or un jeune homme serieux, as she takes pains to pronounce, casual français being the height of sophistication for a 16-year-old in 1961 England. A bright girl on the cusp of adulthood in a country on the cusp of dramatic change, Jenny, played by Carey Mulligan, is hungry for independence and rapacious for experience. “I want to read what I want and listen to what I want,” she declares, and she gets her chance when she’s taken under the wing of an older man, David (Peter Sarsgaard), after he gives her a ride home from cello practice in the rain.
Nick Hornby’s screenplay, based on a memoir by Lynn Barber, adroitly dramatizes the state of the clever teenager desperate for more. David doesn’t offer Jenny sweet talk but instead engages her in a conversation about Elgar, and soon he has talked Jenny’s parents (bewildered Alfred Molina and touching Cara Seymour) into letting him take her to a concert, and then out for dinner along with his friends Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike). In the impossibly glamorous company of these grown-ups — who know about drinks and talk about literature and listen to jazz — Jenny gets a taste of the life she’s dreamed of, a life that puts dull Twickenham and her awkward classmates far behind her.
Needless to say, there are complications. One is that David, Danny and Helen are not exactly nobility, and as Jenny becomes aware of how they make the money that funds their excursions to Oxford and Paris, she struggles with her own response. “Don’t be bourgeois, Jenny, you’re better than that,” David chides her, playing expertly into her fears, then flattering her: “We’re not clever like you, so we have to be clever in other ways.” Though the complications aren’t unexpected or even all that well-handled, An Education is still an enjoyable, well-acted drama that convincingly portrays an accelerated adolescence in a turbulent time.
In large part the success of An Education can be traced to its excellent cast, and Scherfig’s specific, well-considered direction of them. Mulligan, first seen in America as Nina being wooed by Sarsgaard’s Trigorin in last year’s excellent Broadway revival of The Seagull, is sharp-edged and appealing as Jenny, bouncing nicely off both the quiet David and her hapless, blustery father. Jenny’s put-on worldliness, even in a crummy airport hotel, is charming, and the moments when she lets her guard drop are genuinely touching.
The rest of the cast is exemplary, especially Pike as an experienced woman who asks her beaux no questions and tells Jenny no lies, and Molina, who sees his careful plan to make Jenny the first in his family to go to college falling apart for the unlikeliest of reasons. Emma Thompson and Olivia Williams give tart performances as disappointed staff at Jenny’s school, and Sally Hawkins is notable for how diametrically opposed in spirit her small but important role in this film is from her sunny turn in last year’s Happy-Go-Lucky.
“Action is character,” Jenny’s English teacher tells her. Jenny interprets that to mean that “if we don’t do anything, we don’t become anybody.” It’s no spoiler to note, with pleasure, that Jenny’s at least a little bit wrong. For all her mistakes, her character is not ruined. The person she becomes depends not only on the choices that she makes, good and bad, but on the wit and strength she’s had all along. For all its embrace of the sophisticated life, there’s an old-fashioned ideal at the center of An Education, one that Mulligan’s starmaking performance drives home. David would find the idea hopelessly bourgeois, but in the end An Education is a celebration not only of the sense of adventure that waylays Jenny, but of the moral compass that sets her straight again.