An Education, directed by Danish Dogme 95 veteran Lone Scherfig and written by English novelist Nick Hornby, resembles no movie so closely as My Brilliant Career, Gillian Armstrong's 1979 film about a fiercely independent teenage girl in turn-of-the century Australia who must choose between a career as a writer and marriage to a wealthy man. Both movies are apparently conventional period dramas that smuggle feminism in under their petticoats (or, in An Education's case, their sleek Jackie Kennedy shifts). Both are directed by women and based on the life of a real woman. (My Brilliant Career began as a thinly disguised roman à clef by Stella "Miles" Franklin; An Education had its beginnings in a personal essay by Lynn Barber that appeared in Granta and eventually became a book.) Most of all, An Education resembles My Brilliant Career in that it will be remembered mainly as the debut vehicle for its magnetic female star. I hesitate to call Carey Mulligan the new Judy Davis, because the old Judy Davis is still around, still fabulous, and hopefully not done making movies. But Mulligan has something of Davis' tomboyish charm and keen intelligence, not to mention dimples you could set up shop in.
Mulligan (who's 22 but looks about 15) plays Jenny, a schoolgirl in the drab London suburb of Twickenham in 1961. An only child and a bright girl, Jenny is being molded by her parents (Cara Seymour and Alfred Molina) for an Oxford education. Everything she does, from studying Latin to playing the cello in the school orchestra, is calculated to maximize Jenny's chances of getting into Oxford. Like a heroine in a girls' novel, Jenny just knows she's meant for something more as she sings along to Juliette Greco albums in her room. One day, caught in the rain on the way home from an orchestra rehearsal, she's offered a ride by David (Peter Sarsgaard), a handsome and apparently rich man at least 15 years her senior. (It's a flaw in the film's storytelling that we're never quite clear on how old David is supposed to be.) For Jenny, David is an exotic specimen in myriad ways: a Jew, a man of the world, a lover of fine music and art, and a breaker of rules (extending, as Jenny soon learns, to "Thou shalt not steal").
The smooth-talking David insinuates himself into the affections of Jenny's parents with surprising (and, to this parent, disturbing) ease, and soon he's spiriting her away to weekends in Oxford and Paris with his chum Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Danny's girlfriend Helen (Rosamund Pike, whose take on the dumb-blonde archetype is surprising and fresh). Danny and Helen live in a posh London apartment and buy pre-Raphaelite paintings at auction. David's living situation and source of income remain vague—by the movie's second hour, it starts to seem odd that a clever girl like Jenny would never even ask where he lives. Eventually, David's carefully maintained persona cracks wide open, but by then it may be too late for Jenny to save her academic future and—at least as important in Britain in 1961—her reputation.
The release of this film on the heels of the Roman Polanski and David Letterman scandals will make, if nothing else, for some lively post-movie conversations. David and Jenny's sexual relationship is consensual, but what does consent mean between a 16-year-old and a man in his mid-30s? David is creepy, yes, but ultimately the film wants us to file his and Jenny's affair under the category of "youthful mistakes we're glad we made." Jenny seems so self-possessed, and blossoms so visibly under David's tutelage, that you find yourself rooting for her as she schemes to deceive her parents. In the last half-hour, a gloomy, moralizing tone kicks in that's completely at odds with the romantic caper that came before (though Emma Thompson, as the stern headmistress at Jenny's school, re-enlivens the proceedings with her usual tart wit). And Jenny's closing voice-over narration is inappropriately rosy, all but saying that the best way to deal with an adolescent trauma is to deny it ever happened. Who knows, maybe if you're British, it is.
For the first time in this role, I got a glimpse of Peter Sarsgaard's limitations as an actor. His specialty has always been soft-spoken malice, a way of regarding his interlocutor with tenderly amused contempt. This affect works perfectly for the first half of the movie, when we see David mainly through Jenny's besotted eyes as he enjoys her enjoyment of him. But David's underlying insecurity and panic—which are telegraphed early on by the script—never come through quite clearly enough. Sarsgaard's trademark opacity and the script's refusal to spell out just what drives David's compulsive behavior serve the character ill. (In two different scenes, for example, it's suggested that David has odd sexual tastes, but whether out of discretion or desire to keep its PG-13 rating, the movie leaves this angle unexplored.) Alfred Molina, on the other hand, is lucky enough to be served up a role that's both beautifully realized and well-suited to him. Jenny's loving but shortsighted and provincial father, Jack, gets the movie's biggest laugh when he lectures his ambitious daughter that it's far better to know a great writer than to be one.
With its sumptuous art direction and soundtrack of French '60s pop, An Education is lovely as far as it goes, but that's not quite far enough. As she's being put through her Oxford-prep paces, Jenny complains about "ticking off boxes," and at times, this film seems to be doing just that: coming-of-age drama, check. Youthful illusions shattered, check. But as with first love, so with the movies: The right girl makes it all worthwhile.
Slate V: Reviews of Good Hair, Couples Retreat, and An Education