The title is a double entendre in An Education, the film version of British journalist Lynn Barber's memoir about the crash course she received in the "university of life" while studying for her A-levels in early-1960s suburban London. So, too, is Danish director Lone Scherfig's movie something of a deceptively packaged Oscar-season bonbon — a seemingly benign, classily directed year-I-became-a-woman nostalgia trip that conceals a surprisingly tart, morally ambiguous center. A hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival, where it collected the Audience prize for world cinema, An Education arrives in cinemas at a curious moment indeed for a movie about a headstrong 16-year-old who gives herself willingly to a charismatic Jewish hustler more than twice her age. Whatever will the Roman Polanski lynch mob make of that?
The year is 1961, and the place Twickenham, which hasn't yet begun to pivot, let alone swing, much to the frustration of Barber surrogate Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a spirited overachiever who peppers her schoolgirl chit-chat with existentialist references and fancies herself a burgeoning Parisian sophisticate in the Juliette Gréco mold. Into Jenny's staid milieu saunters David Goldman (Peter Sarsgaard, doing a passable British accent), a thirtysomething entrepreneur with a purposefully vague C.V. and a silver-tongued hustle to go with it. Prowling the Twickenham streets in his sleek maroon Bristol, he offers a soggy Jenny a ride home in a downpour and is soon whisking her off to glamorous concerts and art auctions in the company of his "business partner," Danny (Dominic Cooper), and Danny's ditzy girlfriend, Helen (a wonderful Rosamund Pike, doing some Judy Holliday–worthy double takes). Impressionable Jenny soaks it all up, even as she realizes that this latter-day Henry Higgins has visions of something other than a youth orchestra cello planted between her virginal thighs. Slower on the uptake, Jenny's superficially strict parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) scarcely bat an eye, perhaps sensing that, for a young woman of the era, becoming Mrs. David Goldman might be a perfectly valid alternative to Oxford.
Given that Barber's own résumé runs the gamut from Penthouse contributor to a bestselling sex manual called How to Improve Your Man in Bed, it's hardly surprising that An Education (which was adapted for the screen by novelist Nick Hornby) adopts a laissez-faire attitude toward underage sex and the other rites of passage that most coming-of-age stories treat as sacred rituals. (Upon finally bedding down with her older suitor, Jenny remarks, "All that poetry and all those songs about something that lasts no time at all.") Even as the inevitable fissures begin to form in David's too-good-to-be-true facade, the movie places those personal betrayals in perspective against the considerably more treacherous racial and gender inequalities coursing through British society at the time. When Jenny's kindly English teacher (Olivia Williams) and prim headmistress (Emma Thompson) attempt to hold her to the straight and narrow, she willfully retorts, "It's not enough to educate us anymore. You have to tell us why you're doing it."
Undeniably designed for mass consumption, An Education elides some potentially awkward bits of business (Jenny and David's actual consummation happens offscreen) and uses the forgiving prisms of time and memory to soften a few of its blows. But Barber's elemental tough-mindedness and lack of sentimentality remain constants, as does Mulligan's enchanting central performance. Twenty-two when the film was shot, with only a handful of minor movie and television appearances behind her, she doesn't get an entrance here on par with, say, Audrey Hepburn's regal procession in Roman Holiday or Jean Seberg's seaside frolic in Otto Preminger's Bonjour Tristesse — but it doesn't take long for her to cast the same sort of beguiling spell. A petite, round-faced brunette with dimpled cheeks and a darting, fiercely intelligent gaze, Mulligan is onscreen for nearly every frame of An Education, and in those 90-odd minutes, her Jenny seems to transform before us, from girlish insouciance to womanly self-confidence, from intellectual posturing to possessing a finely honed sense of personal taste. Playing a character who is herself a rare bloom in a field of mediocrity, Mulligan has a quality they can't teach in acting school. A star is born.