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An Education

United Kingdom 2009
Directed by
Lone Scherfig
95 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

Education, An

It’s London, 1961 and Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a 16 year-old schoolgirl from the London outer suburb ofTwickenham is preparing for her A-Levels. She has her sights set on Oxford and beyond until she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), an attractive older man of mysterious ways who offers her a more exciting lifestyle. What’s a poor girl to do?

“An Education” is a nice title for Lone Scherfig’s film – economical to the point of thrift, understated to the point of diffidence and mildly ironic. Typically English in other words. And that, along with Carey Mulligan as the inquisitive young lady about to learn of the wicked ways of the world are the best things about it.

Although Scherfig is a Danish-born director (many will know her work from the indie films Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself, 2003, which she co-wrote and directed and Italian For Beginners, 2000, which she wrote and directed), An Education is as an endearingly nostalgic a portrait of early 1960s London as you would want. Based on the memoirs of English journalist, Lynn Barber (of whom some will know from the TV series, Grumpy Old Women) and scripted by Nick Hornsby, it carefully and delightfully reproduces the look of the period whilst accurately capturing the changing social landscape of the time-honoured, class-based world of “a place for everything and everything in its place” that was on the brink of extinction. In a few more years Jenny would be tuning in to Radio Caroline and turning on but at the time the film is set, not far away in Dartford, a young Mick Jagger was also doing his A-levels.

As Jenny, Carey Mulligan is wonderful. Although slightly too old for the part (she was 23 at the time), she is an engaging poppet who gets the mix of a teenager’s wide-eyed awe and a young woman’s self-possessed scepticism just right. I was less convinced by Peter Sarsgaard as her older beau. Whether this is due to the script not quite being able to pin down his character or to the fact that he simply didn’t pull it off, I could not tell. He's supposed to be an irresistible charmer yet he spends a good deal of the time grinning like a ninny and talking baby talk to Jenny. Perhaps it is because in our more uptight times the idea of a man offering a schoolgirl money to get in his car, the point at which the story effectively begins, seems so improbable (which it clearly wasn’t back then, when English squires had only recently been deprived the right of de-flowering their tenants’ daughters) but from the get-go the ambiguous nature of David’s character gives the film a slightly off-kilter feeling. We know that he is somehow going to be an agent of destruction and that means that we never accept him at face value and thus never truly sink into what is, in essence, a simple and touching coming-of-age story.

The support cast are a treat. Alfred Molina as Jenny’s Anthony Hancock-like Dad and Cara Seymour as her Mum,  Dominic Cooper as David’s shifty partner and Rosamund Pike as his air-headed girlfriend are excellent whilst Olivia Williams and Emma Thompson as a couple of school marms round out the main cast. An Education is charming without being ingratiating, slightly wry, slightly poignant, quintessentially English without labouring the point and an excellent addition to the catalogue of fine films depicting the era. 

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