Directors: Lone Scherfig
Based upon British journalist Lynn Barber’s recent memoirs, which screenwriter Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) and director Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners) have astutely adapted, it’s a fresh telling of the old tale about an impressionable girl falling for a predatory older man.
Evoking early 1960s London as sharply as TV’s Mad Men does New York in the same era, with impeccable art direction adding to its many attributes, An Education is set immediately before the social quakes of the Pill, the Beatles and Women’s Lib.
Sixteen-year-old Jenny (Carey Mulligan), biding her time in suburban Twickenham, is in a hurry to grow up. Jenny’s immediate concern is gaining admission to Oxford, which is anything but a given. The women of 1961 are mostly expected to become wives, not scholars, and Jenny’s middle-class parents (Cara Seymour and Alfred Molina) fret about the money it will cost them.
She will have to keep her grades up if she hopes to succeed. But distraction arrives one rainy day in the dapper form of David (Peter Sarsgaard), a gentleman in a burgundy car who offers a ride and promises the world.
Jenny is soon caught up in David’s whirl of concerts and cafes, accompanied by his chic friends Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike). Does it matter that David is considerably older than Jenny (he’s somewhere in his 30s) and that his stories are slippery?
Only to the viewers, who sense the dread of the situation even as Jenny and her equally enchanted parents warm to David. Her stern dad even approves of weekend trips to Cambridge and Paris, the latter occurring on the momentous occasion of Jenny’s 17th birthday, when loss of virginity is the gift.
Context is paramount in a film as tricky as this. This was a time when women were expected to defer to the wishes of men, even a girl as bright as Jenny. Scherfig and Hornby are careful not to make a monster out of David, whom the redoubtable Sarsgaard plays more as a deluded man-child than as the pariah he would rightly be viewed as today.
First and foremost, An Education is a showcase for Mulligan, who was 22 when she made this film yet effortlessly conveys that moment of 16 going on 17 when the world beckons and its perils seem far away.
Extras include a commentary track by Scherfig, Mulligan and Sarsgaard.