Jenny (Mulligan) is attractive, doing well at school and set to land a place at Oxford. Then she meets David (Sarsgaard), an older man. He dazzles her with the edgy world beyond her 60s suburban life, and soon a very different destiny opens up before her
An Education is one of those movies that bubbles with an easy charm, gently engaging as its story neatly unfurls, taking you to a satisfying climax without feeling the need for detours, and where there are revelations, but nothing so dramatic as a ‘twist’. Of course, you’d be reptilian if you didn’t feel a sense of unease when, say, Peter Sarsgaard’s creepy David finally gets teenager Jenny (Carey Mulligan) into his bedroom and sheepishly asks to see her breasts. But it’s to screenwriter Nick Hornby’s credit that said scene doesn’t then deteriorate into an attempted rape, and that Danish director Lone Scherfig never feels the need to slam on the drama for the sake of hammering home any moral points.
Yet the film’s breeziness leaves it feeling somewhat slight, even if it is adapted from journalist Lynn Barber’s memoir. You’ll exit thinking, “Well, wasn’t that nice?” and An Education should hardly ever bother your memory again... Although, not quite. In a picture blessed with strong performances (Alfred Molina’s authoritative-but-naive dad; Rosamund Pike, who here makes sense of the oxymoron ‘brightly dim’), there’s one that sings out, note-perfect. And that’s Mulligan’s. This is one of those debut leads that wakes up the movie producer in your head, has him splurting out his cigar and barking, “This kid’s gonna be a STAR!”
Scherfig is adept at drawing A-list performances out of unknowns (just go back to Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself and see what she did with Jamie Sives), but Mulligan deserves the credit. Every tiny shift in expression carries the film. There’s barely a scene without her, which is just as well, as you get the sense it would start to crumble like old plaster if she spent too long off-screen. The precocious ingénue is hardly an original concept, but Mulligan makes it feel as unmanufactured as sunlight, deeply convincing as a young woman who is intellectually a step ahead of the rest, but experientially two steps behind.
Of course, it could all go Emily Lloyd for Mulligan, but the extent to which she lifts an otherwise mildly remarkable movie suggests we’ll be seeing much more of her. Indeed, she’s already been cast alongside Keira Knightley in next year’s Never Let Me Go. So the prognosis is, thankfully, good.
A decent but unremarkable film with a big, unforgettable central performance. Carey Mulligan passes with First-Class Honours.