Some movies come down to a single performance, and An Education is
one of those movies. The central performance by Carey Mulligan is
utterly wonderful, and without it I wonder if there would be much of a
movie here at all.
Maybe that’s an exaggeration. Nick Hornby’s screenplay, based on Lynn
Barber’s memoir, is actually quite lovely. What’s especially nice is
the humanity Hornby gives to each of the characters. Set in 1960s
suburban London, An Education follows a young girl who
is on an Oxford trajectory as she gets caught up with a fast living
playboy twice her age; a lesser script would have had her controlling
father be an unctuous monster instead of the sweet, flawed man here,
and a lesser script would have had the playboy be a simple cad as
opposed to the Peter Pan-syndrome sufferer in this movie. The outline
of the movie is a touch obvious – if you think the relationship between
16 year old Jenny and 30-something David is going to end well you might
need to study this film in detail before making life decisions of your
own – but the specifics of it are beautifully alive and real.
Also beautiful and alive and real is Mulligan. Seriously, this is Oscar
caliber work, and it’s career defining work. I dare anyone to walk out
of An Education without being completely in love with
this gorgeous, expressive and intelligent actress. Mulligan understands
the dichotomies that make up a teenager – the strength and the
weakness, the courage and the fear, the wisdom and the idiocy – and she
is able to get them across at the same time, embodying completely
opposing elements of humanity. In the hands of this actress Jenny is
one of the more iconic teenage characters in recent memory.
Mulligan works against one of my favorite actors in one of my least
favorite roles. Peter Sarsgaard plays David, the good-time guy who
seems to make his living by stealing valuable artwork from old ladies.
From his initial introduction Sarsgaard is in trouble – he sounds like
your friend who one day affects an English accent for no good reason,
and without much success. Sarsgaard plays David like a toned down
Dickie Greenleaf, someone who just doesn’t really have that spark of
vitality that Jude Law brought in The Talented Mr. Ripley.
It’s easy to understand why Jenny, desperate to go to France and live a
sophisticated life, would fall for David, so Sarsgaard’s occasionally
bloodless performance doesn’t do much damage. If anything it’s his
accent that keeps stumbling things up.
But the other man in Jenny’s life, her father played by Alfred Molina,
is a true delight. Molina finds all the facets of this man who just
wants his daughter to get the best education possible… or to marry a
really rich man so that she doesn’t need an education at all. He wants
what’s best for Jenny, but at this specific cultural moment, as the 60s
are opening up, he doesn’t really understand what’s best for her
anymore. While Molina could simply play the guy as a tyrant from a
different age, the actor taps into the warmth and humor of a provincial
guy who is playing by an outdated rulebook. Molina makes you understand
that he loves his daughter, and that every demand he makes on her comes
from a place of love, not of control. There’s a truly touching scene at
the end of the film that might be the most understanding portrait of a
father trying to come to terms with his daughter’s womanhood I’ve ever
Director Lone Scherfig captures a palpable slice of London history,
creating a world that is tactile and present. She allows scenes to
unfold at their own pace, and allows humor to come in unforced. It’s
restrained directing at its finest, as Scherfig lets the story be the
story and doesn’t push any big moments down our throats. An Education is
a very small movie, with a very personal scope, and Scherfig
understands how to keep the intimacy and reality while also getting
across the large emotions that any teenage girl will feel.
Again, all of these elements are fine and good, but I don’t think An Education would
be half the movie it is without Mulligan. It’s exciting to watch a
performance like this, where you lose sight of the fact that it is a
performance. Obviously some of that comes from Mulligan being an
unknown quantity, but much of it comes simply from the young actress’
skills. Even for those who find An Education underwhelming – and it is, without a doubt, slight – Carey Mulligan is worth the price of admission.