Set in the gray, drab atmosphere of post-war England, An Education opens with a montage of academia: English schoolgirls being taught to graduate, work, marry, and raise a family. One of the girls, Jenny Moller (Carey Mulligan), is sixteen and believes herself more than ready to enter the world of adulthood. She’s a precocious student, tailor-made for Oxford University, driven by the expectations of her domineering, yet loving father (a scene-stealing Alfred Molina) and her supportive mother (Cara Seymour). But looking beyond her academic accomplishments and ambitions, Jenny pines to live a more free-spirited life. Enter David (Peter Sarsgaard), a 30-something male of disarming sophistication and charm who introduces Jenny to his friends (Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike), as well as to cocktails, fancy cigarettes, and sex. Although twice Jenny’s age, David is classy, rich, and he sincerely wishes to share with his young paramour all of the pleasures in life she hasn’t yet experienced — which means he poses a threat to her otherwise bright future.
Penned by acclaimed pop author Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, A Long Way Down), An Education serves up witty material paired with the confident direction of Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig. The pages of a Hornby novel are known for their caustic wit and dialogue, capable of translating to amusing cinematic moments (David’s offering to save Jenny’s cello from the rain) and rich characterizations, elevating this film from its sporadically flat and ordinary narrative. Both writer and director deliver a film with a strong female protagonist, which of course brings us to leading lady Carey Mulligan. Like her character, Mulligan proves to have a bright future ahead of her (an Oscar, perhaps) as she takes command of the film and serves as its emotional core. A creature of inspiring and willful intellect, she maintains a balance between the wide-eyed wonder and solemn naiveté of a girl and the headstrong maturity and sophistication of a woman. Just bordering the age of consent, her character draws superficial comparisons to Vladimir Nabokov’s young temptress in Lolita. However, Jenny is not a pubescent object of desire; she’s a bright, modest beauty, wise beyond her years and aware of when she’s being manipulated (usually). Yet she remains an example of innocence lost as David, her Humbert Humbert, exemplifies the morally ambiguous balance of perfect gentleman and sexual predator. Jenny’s concerned teacher (Olivia Williams) and her stern headmistress (Emma Thompson) are unable to deter Jenny as she chooses love over schooling and wracks up one bad decision after another. We watch as Jenny learns about life and the fleeting chances it offers us the hard way, and Mulligan carries off this complex portrayal with conviction and grace.
Which makes An Education‘s last act stumble all the more frustrating: Scherfig and company tack on a dismissive ending, offering only a montage and a lazy narration to explain our heroine’s unearned resolution. This ending undermines the momentum of the film, and holds it back from tilt at greatness. But even so, the merit of the performances that hold An Education together, and its genuine wit and intelligence, shouldn’t so easily be dismissed, despite the film’s whimper of an ending.