At it’s core, An Education tells a story that’s much too familiar these days: A young girl meets an older man, finds him interesting, mature, able to free her from the dull and restricted childhood life she feels stuck in. Pretty soon a relationship has sprung up, despite the warnings of the other adults in her life, and…well, maybe you know where it goes, maybe you don’t. I wont give it away. Many of the details are out of the ordinary, and some aren’t. I wont tell you which ones.
The story (adapted by Nick Hornby, of High Fidelity fame) is set in England, sometime in the 60’s, and follows the story of Jenny, an incredibly intelligent and talented Oxford-bound girl in her last year of high school (Do they call it high school cross the pond? I don’t know.), who meets David, a somewhat older, but very charming and considerate man, who seems to completely understand the strangeness of the situation and does what he can to make sure that everyone involved feels safe. Peter Sarsgard does a great job at making him not seem creepy. He's looking for a romantic relationship, but seems genuinely more interested in companionship than sex.
The film makes a point to show that Jenny is a model student, highly driven, with big goals and the willingness and intelligence to meet them. It’s precisely this intelligence that makes so much of what could be a boring and cliched story work. You don’t watch the film thinking “Wow, what a stupid girl. What could she be thinking?”, because you see those arguments on screen, and not only does Jenny tell you what she’s thinking, but she is smart and eloquent enough to make some pretty good points. You feel intuitively that she’s wrong (I wont tell you if she is), but at times the logic she uses can be hard to argue with. It lets you connect with the character in a way you normally wouldn’t, and with stories like these, having that investment in her fate is essential.
Director Lone Scherfig does a lot of the legwork as well. A lot of people might not think that this sort of story that requires a lot of special skill on the part of the director, but this is a perfect example of how a film's formal construction can enhance an audience's understanding of a character. A lot has been said about the excellent visual quality of the film, and it is excellent. The world David brings Jenny into is incredibly glamorous. Scherfig and her team pull no punches when it comes to lighting, color, costume and set design. It’s beautiful , to be sure, but it also serves an important storytelling purpose. By glamorizing those scenes, and keeping Jenny’s normal life looking somewhat drab (they have a more muted color scheme, focusing on whites and browns), the filmmaker shows us the world from Jenny’s point of view. Watching the film, I found myself wanting it all to work out, hoping that it really wasn’t too good to be true. It’s a subtle trick, but a masterfully executed and essential one that works flawlessly.
I guess it’s time I stopped beating around the bush and got to the primary reason An Education deserves its acclaim, which is Carey Mulligan’s performance. Her balancing act between Jenny’s intellectual maturity and emotional immaturity seems effortless. It’s one of those performances that you don’t immediately realize is as good as it actually is, because it disappears so thoroughly into the film. It is highly conventional, neither strictly naturalistic nor overly theatrical, but there are no false notes. Mulligan inhabits the character so well that Jenny is all you ever see. You forget that a performance is taking place at all. This is the sort of performance that really helps the viewer get engrossed in the story. As much as I love watching Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, at times I’m so in awe of the performance that the context becomes secondary. I’m watching the actor, not the character. Watching An Education, I never lost sight of Jenny.
This isn’t a leap forward in the art of cinema. It’s not a game changer. Nor does it tell a new tale. But it tells it so well that it doesn’t matter. Everyone who worked on this film gave it their all, and it shines through in the final product. Perhaps that isn’t the sort of film we remember years from now, but I believe that it still deserves respect, and it deserves an audience. I hope everyone who reads this is inspired to seek it out. You wont be disappointed.