From the moment the film started, the audience of An Education had a collective understanding that what we were about to see no longer applied. Based on the memoir of British journalist Lynn Barber, the film opens with a nostalgically ridiculous montage of ‘60s-era schoolgirls learning their daily lessons: cooking, ballroom dancing, and walking with proper posture (books-on-heads and all). As one appropriately conservative image dissolved into another, everyone in the theater—man and woman alike—was given more and more to incredulous laughter, amused and thankful for how far we’ve come and where we once were.
For this reason, we felt instantly connected to the film’s protagonist, Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a sixteen-year-old girl who is intellectually and culturally out of her time. As I watched her shut herself up in her room and sing along to French records, I was reminded of Vada Sultenfuss in My Girl, another precocious heroine of the early sixties who, too smart and intuitive for her age, finds herself mostly unable to connect with her peers and seeks refuge in her own solitude, dreaming of more. Jenny is smarter than both of her parents, even her father (a charmingly bumbling Alfred Molina), who tries in vain to rule with an iron fist and often ends up sounding like the petulant child.
Still, there are cracks in Jenny’s urbane composure, and Mulligan is masterful at finding the right moments for uncontrollable bursts of girlishness, mostly when she is overwhelmed by her older suitor, David (Peter Sarsgaard), an unnervingly charming thirty-something who pulls over in his car after a music lesson to give her shelter from the rain. Sarsgaard is quietly magnetic, to the point where we, too, are wooed by him and, like Jenny and her family, have no idea just how manipulative he is until the end of the film.
Though this unconventional romance is the main focus of An Education, the film’s issues become much broader when, in the wake of her seventeenth birthday, Jenny turns to her parents and asks, “What if I got married instead of going to college?” It is here that the film takes a sharp turn from intimate coming of age tale to rumination on the M.R.S. degree syndrome of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Jenny’s inner conflict over what kind of education will be best for her is endemic to the period, but it is treated with such elegance and subtlety that it feels utterly immediate.
It is devastating to watch Jenny’s much-too-quick tumble toward womanhood end in sacrifice and, finally, disillusionment and heartbreak. What’s even more devastating, however, is how the film resolves—or doesn’t resolve—her shattered life. As in My Girl, an abrupt Insta-Happy-Ending mends all of the protagonist’s loose, tattered ends and wraps them up in a bow with the power of voice-over narration. And even if the audience was happy to see Jenny restore her life to its former pre-David state, this reclamation of innocence seemed forced and unrealistic and left us all unsettled.
Ultimately, the film’s acting is its best feature, but that alone is far too good to miss.