An Education is a loving portrait of its time and place: suburban London, 1961. But these 60s don’t swing. World War II is a far more relevant reference point in the lives of 16-year-old Jenny (Carey Mulligan) and her family, as she makes her way through one last dreary year of high school before heading to, everyone hopes, Oxford. Screenwriter Nick Hornby's adaptation of an essay-length memoir by Lynn Barber bears some surface similarities to Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. But while McEwan's and Hornby's explorations of innocence and its exeunt are set in the same period and country, An Education creates a more joyous atmosphere, fueled by exploration close at hand. Yet, for all the mildly salacious advance press, the film is most definitely not about sex. It is instead a stately, nostalgic backward gaze at the thrill of the new and the promise of what may come to pass.
That promise is, of course, invariably fraught with all kinds of complications as it runs headlong into reality. Though the sophisticated David has no problem breezing past the wary pride and prejudice (he's Jewish) of Jenny's parents, her academic minders are a little more skeptical. But Jenny could care less, as David introduces her to his fabulous friends and takes it upon himself to educate her in the ways of the good life, as lived by the scions of privilege and fortune.
Except it's a little more complicated than that. David is a person (or maybe a force of pure will) operating outside the strictures of class in a society that still adheres rigidly to that order, and it should come as no surprise to anyone that, as a result, he's never exactly what he says he is. But without good old Google to do a little fact-checking, who's any the wiser, especially when life's pace becomes this breathless this fast? When David whisks Jenny off for a weekend on the pretext of visiting Oxford to meet "his old professor" C.S. Lewis, her parents don't blink an eye, and neither does the audience: This brave new world of smoke and jazz and art auctions is so exotic he might as well be leading her through the wardrobe to Narnia. She even gets a brand new leopard skin pillbox hat!
The problem is that 10 pages of memoir in a literary magazine only go so far. Short stories of all types tend to fare better than full-length books when adapted for the big screen (no room for sticky subplots or narrative digression), but Hornby does not have the most adept feel for the voice of a 16-year-old girl -- and that's a major problem when said teenager has to carry the entire story. And the Dogme 95-affiliated director Lone Scherfig, whose school of thought renounces lighting, costumes, and props, might not be the ideal hand on the tiller for a sumptuous period drama.
Emma Thompson makes a few promising appearances as Jenny’s headstrong headmistress but has too little to work with in the script. Alfred Molina, swollen into civil-servant corpulence as Jenny’s father Jack, suffers a similar fate in his role, though an argument could be made that his one-dimensionality and drab, platitudinous lines are integral to the character. Mulligan plays wide-eyed Jenny to perfection, though, and the wily Sarsgaard charms even the thoroughly modern onlooker into thinking, "Yes, this relationship could somehow make sense on both sides" -- a significant accomplishment, considering that their dalliance might today be discussed in terms of statutory rape.
The bulk of the movie's enjoyability rests on watching it spoiler-free; suffice to say that someone eventually asks someone a question that sparks a series of them. That line of questioning builds to a fever pitch until it (and the viewer) is exhausted. But An Education closes on a cheery Matilda-and-Miss-Honey note, as Jenny seeks the aid of her buttoned-up English teacher Miss Stubbs (if only She's All That-era Freddie Prinze Jr. were there to take off her glasses! Then Jenny could have appreciated Miss Stubbs’ chiseled beauty all along!), before delivering a gooey final voice-over about the magic of the everyday, seeing the world anew, etc. But it’s too late: In the film, as in Jenny’s world, too much is left unsaid.