By: James Rocchi, reprinted from the Sundance Film Festival 1/23/09

One of the audience and sales success stories at this year's Sundance Film Festival wound up on my screening schedule late in the week through the cruel editorial equations of film festival journalism: An Education became a film I should see because I should see it. There had been praise for Nick Hornby's screenplay adaptation of Lynn Barber's memoir, a coming-of-age-story set in 1961 London; there were raves for Carey Mulligan's performance in the lead role; there was the news that Sony Pictures Classics had picked up the North American distribution rights for $3 million. Late in the festival, buzz and business both assured, An Education became a film to see if only to see if the hum and thrum of the week prior was in fact right.

An Education
opens with the sight of young girls balancing books atop their heads to improve their posture, learning ballroom dancing, and taking home economics; since we know that the '60s are coming, and the young women we see don't quite, yet, the vision is like seeing a dinosaur, back straight and eyes front, walk blithely into a tar pit. Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is part of this world, but looking past it -- she's applying to Oxford, making sure her application looks good on paper. Told by her father (Alfred Molina) that she shouldn't be practicing her cello when she should be hitting the books, she's confused: "I thought we agreed cello was my interest or hobby. ..."
And already, we're in Nick Hornby territory -- an acute awareness of the absurdities of modern life, an acute awareness of the British restraint that has so much difficulty breaking out of them. But, with Jenny juggling classes and a nascent interest in boys while catching the eye of an older man, we're outside of Hornby territory, too. Jenny meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), a charming older man -- he drives a sports car, makes her laugh -- and the two soon begin a romance. It's not unthinkable, but it's not unproblematic -- Jenny's but 16, and David is much older. But soon both Jenny and mom (Cara Seymour) and dad are won over, and there's the question of if Jenny's arduous path to Oxford is even worth continuing along. ...

Nathan Rabin wrote in The Onion's AV Club that he said he felt he'd seen the coming-of-age beats in An Education before, and I would, respectfully, disagree with him; An Education is partially the story of one young woman coming of age, but it is also the story of the age that produced that young woman. Jenny lives slightly after the time when feminism is impossible but slightly before it was inevitable in a gap between the stoic "mustn't grumble" grayness of English middle-class life after the war and the stylish shine of the coming cool Britannia. Jenny fears the A-bomb but hasn't heard of the Beatles; she lives a modest life, and David's friends and world glitter so fiercely she must reach for them, unaware or uncaring that the light and glamour she covets sparkles off a sharp and cutting edge. ...

Director Lone Scherfig (Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, Italian for Beginners) has assembled a great cast (including Olivia Williams as Jenny's stern-but-strong teacher, Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike as Sarsgaard's friends and Emma Thompson's three-scene turn as a haughty Headmistress), but also shoots with flair and charm. As David and Jenny explore Paris, the film's a soft-lit paean to romance; when David reveals how he can afford such luxuries, the film goes bright and distant. And the film isn't afraid to tackle the big issues in little, natural ways, as when Williams pins Jenny down through the very British art of the short, sharp sentence: "You can do anything you want, Jenny; you're clever, and you're pretty. Is your boyfriend interested in clever Jenny?"

And while much will be made of Mulligan's grace and charm -- and how she captures both Jenny's coltish, childish aspirations and the slow bloom of Jenny's transformation into a sensual woman -- praising Mulligan's appearance and charisma does a grave disservice to the keen intelligence and open emotional warmth she brings to the part. Jenny isn't perfect; Jenny can be smart and yet foolish, sensible and yet selfish. Hornby may have been pigeonholed as a writer who tells men's stories (or even the stories of boyish men) with High Fidelity and About a Boy, but his work here, building from the foundation of Barber's memoir, builds compelling, human characters regardless of gender or class or age; it's some of his finest work.

I also have to praise Molina's bluff oblivious tenderness and Seymour's quiet concern, as well as Sarsgaard's flickering, fidgety work; David is the perfect man, and Sarsgaard can play that, but can then give, cleanly and calmly, another moment reminding you that no man is perfect. Cooper's a playboy burdened with a heart; Pike is a good-time girl unencumbered by a brain. Sally Hawkins (Happy Go-Lucky) evokes years of pain with a few sentences. An Education is superbly constructed, yes, but those elements also connect; a perfectly-picked song cue speaks to a character's mood, a gorgeous camera shot moves the plot forward, an exquisitely painful line is backed with a warm, real performance. The cruel calculus of film festivals -- where you seek things out because others have seen them, where you follow buzz as opposed to trying to make it -- gave me plenty of reasons to see An Education, but An Education gave me an infinite number of reasons to be glad I did.