It's not often a critic can declare "a star is born," but this is indubitably the case with Carey Mulligan, who plays the 16-year-old English schoolgirl Jenny in "An Education." It might be more accurate if I said "a star who can really act is born." Not all movie stars have the acting chops, but Mulligan has both charisma and talent to burn. Her performance here is a welcome conflagration.
The time is 1961, just as England was pulling out of the postwar doldrums and awaiting the Beatles. Jenny lives with her stuffy parents in the London suburb of Twickenham and attends a strict, local girls' school. A standout English student and lover of all things French – she drops bons mots into her conversation with aplomb – Jenny is a sophisticate without portfolio. She drags deeply on Gauloises and instructs her somewhat gaga classmates on the finer points of existentialism. All that is missing from her life is a companionable suitor and, as if on schedule, he arrives one day in his maroon Bristol roadster to rescue her from a downpour.
David (Peter Sarsgaard) is twice her age, Jewish, and well-to-do, although what exactly he does is not at all clear. He seems able to finesse anything. Jenny's prim mum, Marjorie (Cara Seymour), and overbearing father, Jack (Alfred Molina), are all too easily won over by David, who sets out to impress them with a phony Oxbridge pedigree. In her parents' eyes, Oxford is the latchkey to success, and David, concocting a bogus alibi to spirit Jenny away for an overnight trip, offers to introduce her to his old professor "Clive" – C.S. Lewis.
What he really has in store, with his modish best friend and business partner Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Danny's ditzy girlfriend Helen (Rosamund Pike) in tow, are fun times. David introduces Jenny to swank clubs, art auctions, classical music concerts. Soon she is so far out of her classmates' cultural league that she seems, more than ever, an interloper in their midst.
"An Education" was adapted by Nick Hornby from an autobiographical memoir by the British journalist Lynn Barber. The director was Lone Scherfig, a Danish filmmaker with several earlier features to her credit. It is perhaps this combination of male and female, home-grown and foreign-born, that explains the film's multifaceted successes. Although told primarily through Jenny's eyes, the film is equally sharp in its understanding of the con man mentality. We observe Jenny both as she sees herself (a naif anxious for adulthood) and as David sees her (a trophy for him to burnish).
Because the filmmakers hew closely to Jenny's point of view, we learn about David as she does, in disconcerting fits and starts. It would have been easy for Scherfig to clue us into David's machinations early on, and it would have been even easier for Sarsgaard to wink at us. But his performance is extraordinarily nuanced. When he takes Jenny to Paris for her 17th birthday, which is when she plans to lose her virginity to him, his avidity for her is palpable. And yet he seems as naive as she does at this crossroads, perhaps more so. He realizes he has taken on not just a girl but her entire complicated life. He's humbled – and a little frightened – by the enormity of what he has set in motion.
Mulligan, who was 22 at the time the film was shot, has created an extraordinary new heroine for the movies. When she's gamboling around Paris, her Jenny is a misfit gamine who, intentionally no doubt, evokes the young Audrey Hepburn. At other times, when Jenny's headmistress (Emma Thompson) is sternly lecturing her on the wages of sin, she seems a bit like the reticent but prideful Hepburn of "The Nun's Story." Jenny is too special to be regarded as symbolic, but she incarnates the swinging London generation that was about to burst onto the scene. Jenny above all wants to experience life, which is why, even when things go terribly wrong, we can't feel sorry for her. Ultimately, it is why she can't pity herself, either. She knows what she let herself in for and she has few regrets.
The movie, particularly toward the end, is not faultless. Jack's role in essentially pimping his daughter for an Oxford education is played for comedy, and that education is the occasion for a too-neat wrap-up. Although all signs point to it, the film seems to be missing at the finale a much needed heart-to-heart scene between Jenny and her mother.
But these are defects in a movie that, for the most part, is bracingly perceptive about the human comedy. David tells Jenny early on that he is a graduate of the "university of life," and by the end of "An Education," you'll feel like a fellow alum. Grade: A- (Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving sexual content and for smoking.)