Much is remarkable about the sweet and wonderful coming-of-age period drama “An Education,” the latest from Danish director Lone Scherfig and the first unqualified breakout at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. For Scherfig, who remains best known for her 2000 foreign-language comedy “Italian for Beginners,” “An Education” reveals a filmmaker talented at quality, mass-appeal storytelling. Veteran novelist and screenwriter Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity,” “About a Boy”) adapts a short memoir by journalist Lynn Barber and expands it into a distinct, full-fledged script as satisfying as any of his previous stories. But its greatest surprise revolves around British actress Carey Mulligan as Jenny, the sixteen-year-old heroine of the film.
Mulligan is a newcomer to most audiences and while she has strong stage and TV work as well as supporting roles in art-house movies, “An Education” is her first leading screen role. She’s fantastic, utterly believable as a schoolgirl who desperately wants to be seen as a sophisticated adult.
“An Education” is an unqualified breakout because it is the rare Sundance film that’s both artistically and commercially strong. It’s a breakout because it shows the well-regarded Scherfig in a new, box-office friendly light. Finally, it’s a discovery for Mulligan, the type of career-changing performance that few actresses ever receive. Scherfig and Hornby give Mulligan the chance to shine in “An Education” but her work and talent exceed all expectations.
It is 1961 and Jenny (Mulligan) is tired of her teenage life in drab suburban London with her conservative parents Jack (Alfred Molina) and Marjorie (Cara Seymour). She sees earning a place at Oxford as her best route to a cultured, sophisticated adulthood. That is, until meeting David (Peter Sarsgaard), an older, Jewish man, someone worldly beyond her imagination.
With David in Jenny’s life, taking her to plush nightclubs and restaurants, her school boyfriend Graham (Matthew Beard) does not stand a chance. David even dazzles her parents with his charm. Suddenly, she has a tantalizing choice – continue to work hard for a place at Oxford or marry her charismatic although mysterious older boyfriend.
Author Lynn Barber’s original story, one based on her own life, ran just 12 pages in Granta but that does not stop Hornby from expanding the story beyond Jenny’s core dilemma of whether she will land at Oxford or not.
“An Education” works so beautifully because Jenny’s story is the most universal. It’s about a child transforming into an adult or rather the revelation about what type of adult Jenny will become.
Lone Scherfig takes the strong filmmaking skills she’s revealed in previous films — generating likable performances, strong technique and a knack for likable, ensemble storytelling — and puts them to use on a larger more audience-friendly scale. “An Education” is her largest canvas yet and with the help of cameraman John de Borman (“Last Chance Harvey”) and production designer Andrew McAlpine (“The Beach”), she succeeds brilliantly, capturing 1961 Britain as a conservative, thrifty and drab time. “An Education” takes place before the swinging sixties, which is an important point to the film.
Cara Seymour and Alfred Molina are perfect as Jenny’s cautious parents, two people unsure of what to make of Jenny’s bohemian interests. Emma Thompson makes great use of her brief scenes as Jenny’s strict school headmistress. Olivia Williams reveals welcome sympathy as Jenny’s caring teacher Miss Stubbs. Dominic Cooper is both handsome and charismatic as Danny, David’s friend and mysterious business partner. Rosamund Pike uses her trademark beauty to great effect as Danny’s dim girlfriend Helen, content with her luxurious but vacant life.
Peter Sarsgaard threads the needle as David, revealing plenty of charm but also some necessary menace. Sarsgaard, with a believable British accent, is convincing as the type of man who could win the heart of an independent spirit like Jenny.
“An Education” is about Jenny’s path towards to adulthood and much of its drama, heartache and well-placed laughs revolve around Carey Mulligan (“Pride & Prejudice” and “When Did You Last See Your Father?”) and her ability to bring this young girl who adores the French and is desperate to be seen as sophisticated to life. Mulligan, every bit as pretty, charismatic and sharp-witted as Gwyneth Paltrow in her breakout film “Emma,” makes Jenny a character to love. Perhaps, if audiences are lucky, stardom awaits.