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To a 16-year-old seeking a word of sophistication outside her stuffy household, a night out at a jazz club can feel like a lusty Christmas. The dress is slinky instead of schoolgirl. Dinner arrives around the same time a good student should be heading for bed. And a date who’s smooth-talking, well-off, and well-versed in all things refined makes the stammering teen with first-date flop sweat look even more ridiculous.
In Danish director Lone Scherfig’s An Education, you can feel nerves melting into giddiness as Jenny (Carey Mulligan) experiences this scene for the first time. Except that the man who invited her, David (Peter Sarsgaard), is careful to avoid the D-word when he asks her out: “My friends Danny and Helen are coming, too, so it won’t be a…” he trails. The issue? The man’s approximately twice Jenny’s age. And no one can overlook the fact that this girl is both metaphorically and physically advanced beyond her years.
The story (adapted by Nick Hornby from a memoir by Lynn Barber) takes place in 1960s London. However—and though it may seem counterintuitive—the couple’s age difference is the least of what concerns the adults in Jenny’s life. Until she meets David, Jenny is well-behaved and studious, gifted on the cello and aiming to study literature at Oxford. She does dream of the urbane life—cigarettes, French music, dressing in black—but knows that won’t happen until she wriggles from the control of her parents (Cara Seymour and Alfred Molina, the latter an amusing Humpy Dumpty of just-say-no fustiness and general alarm).
Naturally, Mum and Dad are initially wary of letting their little girl gallivant with a man who’s practically their contemporary. But no one, apparently, is immune to David’s charm and cunning: He easily wins them over with facile compliments (“Jenny, you didn’t tell me you had a sister!”) and bald lies (he’s not only an Oxford alum himself; he’s quite close with Jenny’s favorite author, “Clive”—or C.S.—Lewis). So they entrust David—and his “Aunt Helen,” who’s really a cheerfully vacuous socialite played by Rosamund Pike—with their daughter. And Pops being the frugal type, he’s not even all that concerned that Jenny’s romance will make her forget Oxford to instead become a housewife.
David’s effortless ability to enchant has a dark side, though, which is what makes Jenny’s involvement with him as much a lesson as a whirlwind romance. But the witty script and excellent performances never sink the film to a black-and-white portrait of a conniving man tricking an innocent girl. Mulligan’s baby face may often be fresh-scrubbed, but her knowledge of arts and culture and ease at keeping up with her more worldly new friends feels believable; even when David is rationalizing some of his unsavory habits, it doesn’t sound so bad when accompanied by Sarsgaard’s handsome smile and serviceable accent. Much has been made of the film’s inherent skeeviness, too, particularly in light of the Roman Polanski arrest. But Jenny’s dabble in adulthood rarely feels Toddlers in Tiaras–disturbing: She begins dressing with Audrey Hepburn elegance and has the mannerisms to back it up, and for much of the film, the relationship is chaste. A creepy vibe does emerge when, during their first night at a hotel together, David asks, “May I have a look?” but neither the feeling nor his eyes linger.
An Education ultimately feels much more mature than most coming-of-age movies, and will buoy anyone who still remembers what it’s like to take that first peek into life beyond parents and textbooks. It might not have worked as well without Mulligan, a relative newcomer whose face belies Jenny’s every emotion and who can make lines such as “It was the best night of my life” sound simultaneously happy and wistful. Scherfig’s lone misstep is in the film’s final chapters, which are reduced to a cheesy montage and wrapped all too quickly. Even so, its loveliness abides.