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It isn’t easy being a sleeper nowadays. There’s been so much buildup for An Education, which has traveled the film festival circuit since Sundance in January, that it’s difficult for ordinary moviegoers to feel as if they’re discovering it for themselves. I hope inflated expectations don’t harm the film’s reception: it really is quite good and deserving of all the buzz it has generated this year.

Newcomer Carey Mulligan plays a precocious 16-year-old girl growing up in a London suburb in the early…

1960s—before the arrival of swingers, Carnaby Street fashions, and the Beatles. She feels trapped by her bourgeois parents and conventional classroom assignments; then she chances to meet an elegant older man (Peter Sarsgaard) who introduces her to his sleek friends and sophisticated life. It doesn’t take much to turn her head.

Nick Hornby adapted the screenplay from a short memoir by British journalist Lynn Barber; apparently his expansion softens the story a bit even as it expands the horizons of the real-life tale. Danish director Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners, Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself) captures the nuances of time, place, and best of all, performance, from a can’t-miss cast including Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike, Olivia Williams, Emma Thompson, Sally Hawkins, Cara Seymour, and Alfred Molina in a splendid turn as Mulligan’s class-conscious father.

But it’s Mulligan who’s been getting all the attention, and understandably so: she is utterly believable, and engaging, as a girl who can’t wait to be a woman…or so she thinks. Glib comparisons to Audrey Hepburn are fine for headline or copy-writers but don’t really have any substance: Mulligan is a first-rate actress with appealing looks. All evidence points to a long and fruitful career, but for now An Education will serve as her calling card. Every actress should be so lucky.

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