Over recent years, movie-goers have been subjected to countless coming-of-age tales imbued with a plot concerning a young, naïve person who receives a preview of the adult world lying in wait for them. Directed by Lone Scherfig and scripted by Nick Hornby, 2009's An Education is the latest of this particular pedigree, and it overcomes the numbing sense of familiarity by showcasing a mature, level-headed take on this particular coming-of-age journey. An open, honest examination of sexual politics and a woman's place in the world during the early 1960s, An Education is an immaculately-crafted ode to the loss of innocence which boasts top-shelf performances, evocative cinematography, and a solid screenplay at its core. It's a rich, satisfying cinematic experience, and one of the greatest movies of 2009.
Set during 1961, An Education tells the story of 16-year-old schoolgirl Jenny Mellor (Mulligan) who resides in the London suburb of Twickenham with her parents. Studying hard on the wishes of her father (Molina) in the sole pursuit of getting into Oxford, Jenny soon grows tired of the life chosen for her. Jenny's life drastically changes when she meets David (Sarsgaard); a man twice her age who she meets while walking home from school one day. Seductive and charismatic, David charms Jenny's parents and subtly ingratiates himself into her life. He goes out of his way to show both Jenny and her family that his interests in the 16-year-old are not improper; he merely wishes to expose her to the cultural activities she enjoys the most. She quickly grows accustomed to the life to which David and his companions, Danny (Cooper) and Helen (Pike), have shown her, and the relationship between David and Jenny begins to transform into something romantic. But, as the time-honoured adage states, if something looks too good to be true, it probably is...
The title of An Education refers to the life lessons learned by Jenny as the consequence of her romantic interactions with David. She's educated about life, love and herself throughout the events of this movie - at first she believes she's worldly and self-assured upon entering her liaison with David, but soon learns her sheltered upbringing could never fully prepare her for the painful aspects of the "real world".
Nick Hornby's screenplay (based on the memoirs of Lynn Barber) is incisive and intelligent, and bursts with razor-sharp dialogue. Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig, best known for Italian for Beginners and Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, largely allows the material and the performances to tell the story. The director has no insistent style; instead allowing the narrative to unfold with low-key mise-en-scène. On top of this, Scherfig effortlessly evokes the post-war state of the London suburbs - a state which made Jenny restless and her elders complacent - through top-shelf costumes, art direction and musical choices (the soundtrack hums with the era's pop tunes, adding an extra element of fizz). This is a far more difficult job than it might seem, since this particular period of British history essentially lacked key social or cultural signifiers which would explode in the subsequent years (The Beatles were not big yet, for instance). The film's closing scenes do feel distinctly rushed (with lazy narration) and there are several bothersome loose ends (specifically in relation to Danny and Helen), but these objections are minor.
It's borderline rude to get this far into a review of An Education without mentioning young Carey Mulligan. Move over Lindsay Lohan, Hilary Duff and the Olsen twins, and make way for this highly talented young star who isn't a total airhead. Making her stunning leading lady debut here, Mulligan was 22 years old at the time the movie was shot, and effortlessly passes as a teenager of only 16/17 years of age. More than that, she's capable of playing a myriad of emotions, sometimes all at the same time. She's an actress who knows how to work with her eyes; contradicting a brave face by showing the fear and disappointment boiling underneath. Without a doubt, this is the type of performance that will compel movie-goers to look up the actress on the Internet Movie Database in search of other movies she can be seen in. While her résumé is more substantial than others of her age group, Mulligan's work is mainly restricted to roles in British television and supporting parts in major movies (she featured in Public Enemies, in a "blink and you'll miss her" role). To say her performance in An Education is eye-opening would be an understatement; watching her unforced transformation from child to adult is one of those rare star-is-born moments.
Yet, this is not a movie which lives and dies by its leading performance - Mulligan is surrounded by a ridiculous amount of talent. Peter Sarsgaard adopts a wholly credibly British accent; easily slipping into the role of a cad, and conveying limitless charm which makes the premise far easier to buy. Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike are equally remarkable, with each espousing a believable accent and emanating charm as David's close friends. Revered British star Emma Thompson is given only a handful of scenes as the headmistress, but nevertheless steals every frame in which she features. If An Education doesn't contain the best ensemble cast of 2009, it's a sure-fire contender for the honour.
With smart, sprightly dialogue from Hornby, smooth direction from Scherfig, unanimously excellent work in the acting department and a star-making performance from Carey Mulligan, it's easy to recommend An Education. Best of all, though, is that it's also solid evidence that a drama doesn't need to be overtly downbeat and distressing to convey a story like this.