*An Education (PG-13)
Kimball's Peak Three
To a 16-year-old seeking a world of sophistication beyond her buttoned-down household, a night at a jazz club can feel like a lusty Christmas. The dress is slinky instead of schoolgirl. Dinner arrives around the time a good student should be heading for bed. And a date who's smooth-talking, well-off and well-versed in all things refined makes the stammering teen look even more ridiculous.
In Danish director Lone Scherfig's An Education, you can feel nerves melting into giddiness as Jenny (Carey Mulligan) experiences this scene for the first time. Except that the man who invited her, David (Peter Sarsgaard), is careful to avoid the D-word: "My friends Danny and Helen are coming, too, so it won't be a ..." he trails. The issue? The man's approximately twice Jenny's age. And no one can overlook the fact that this girl is metaphorically and physically beyond her years.
The story (adapted by Nick Hornby from a memoir by Lynn Barber) takes place in 1960s London. Until she meets David, Jenny is well-behaved and studious, gifted on the cello and aiming to study literature at Oxford. She does dream of the urbane life — cigarettes, French music, dressing in black — but knows first she must wriggle free from the control of her parents (Cara Seymour and Alfred Molina, the latter an amusing Humpy Dumpty of just-say-no fustiness and general alarm).
Naturally, Mum and Dad are wary of letting their little girl gallivant with a man who's practically their contemporary. But no one, apparently, is immune to David's charm: He wins them over with facile compliments ("Jenny, you didn't tell me you had a sister!") and bald lies (he's not only an Oxford alum, he's close with Jenny's favorite author, "Clive" C.S. Lewis). So they entrust David — and his "Aunt Helen," who's really a cheerfully vacuous socialite played by Rosamund Pike — with their daughter. And Pops, being the frugal type, isn't all that concerned that romance will make her forget Oxford to become a housewife.
David's effortless ability to enchant has a dark side, which makes Jenny's involvement with him as much a lesson as a romance. But the witty script and excellent performances never sink to a black-and-white portrait of a conniving man tricking an innocent girl. Mulligan's baby face may often be fresh-scrubbed, but her knowledge of arts and culture and ease in keeping up with her worldly friends feels believable. And even when David is rationalizing unsavory habits, they don't sound so bad when accompanied by Sarsgaard's handsome smile and serviceable accent.
Much has been made of the film's inherent skeeviness, too, particularly in light of the Roman Polanski arrest. But Jenny's dabble in adulthood rarely feels disturbing: She begins dressing with Audrey Hepburn elegance and has the mannerisms to back it up, and for much of the film, the relationship is chaste. A creepy vibe does emerge when, during their first night at a hotel, David asks, "May I have a look?" but neither the feeling nor his eyes linger.
An Education ultimately feels more mature than most coming-of-age movies, and will buoy anyone who remembers taking that first peek into life beyond parents and textbooks. It might not have worked as well without Mulligan, a relative newcomer whose face belies Jenny's every emotion and who can make lines such as "It was the best night of my life" sound simultaneously happy and wistful. Scherfig's lone misstep is in the film's final chapters, which are reduced to a cheesy montage and wrapped all too quickly. Even so, its loveliness abides.