While we all can't be gorgeous and ravishingly intelligent London schoolgirls like Jenny (Carey Mulligan), the wide-eyed heroine on the cusp of womanhood and taking the world by storm, as an audience for the girl-in-trouble tale we're in store for similar experiences.
At first “An Education” is just the vicarious, pleasing allure of saturated primary colors in a 1960s London. Jenny, on her way home in the rain from cello practice, gets a ride from David (Peter Sarsgaard), a charming older man with a casual demeanor and a rare sports car. David and Jenny's eventual friendship has an appeal to the latter that steers the impressionable youngster away from her safe but stuffy life prepping for university. Into the heady arena of concerts, posh nightclubs and international travel she plunges, in a shift almost as intoxicating for us. The movie takes us there with ease, and even glances at its darker implications, but “An Education” shies away from its darker lessons, leaving us more disappointed than Jenny.
This is a movie, like its heroine, torn between impulses. One is the gratifying charm of a beautiful cast and setting. Mulligan, after nearly half a decade in supporting roles, is utterly convincing as a girl eager to leave the drudgery of school behind and launch herself onto the world. Her plan is to attend Oxford, and only one somewhat shaky school subject stands in her way, along with her parents' slightly uncertain resources. Dad wants a scholarship.
The impression is that everything will be all right and Jenny will make it. Her elders, especially her English teacher, Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams), who believes Jenny has talent, are pulling for her. Jenny seems determined until she meets David, who already has everything Jenny is going to school for, including money, connections and the fine things and fabulous lifestyle that accompany them. Jenny's faced with an obvious dilemma. She can go with school or go with David, give up school or give up David. She just can't have both.
David is, at first, just as intriguing as Jenny. The excellent Sarsgaard reins in any obvious signs that might give away too much of his character, an overgrown and over-empowered Eddie Haskell, charming first Jenny, then her well-meaning parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) and eventually us.
Many critics have been quick to congratulate Sarsgaard on David's inherent creepiness, but the actor doesn't make it so easy. Is David creepy? Not really. It's not surprising after spending some time with him that Jenny's dad feels comfortable sending her daughter on trips with him (keeping in mind this is a different era). The telling scene, and the high point of the film, is when David and Jenny spend their first night together in a hotel. Jenny makes it clear she's saving herself for her 17th birthday, and saving herself for David. David, in turn, doesn't miss a beat, expressing firm support for her decision before, charmingly as ever, asking for a sneak peek at her breasts. Amazingly, you still can't figure this guy out.
At this point the movie has its hands more full than David. What's an appropriate age difference in a sexual relationship? Is Jenny a girl or a woman? And regardless, is there just too much of a power advantage between Jenny and the experienced David, no matter what his intentions? Can Jenny be trusted with these questions?
All slippery questions, to be sure, and all eventually dropped by “An Education,” which goes in a completely different direction with its plot. Jenny gets a saving piece of information that feels like a cheat, and beguiling, impenetrable David, alas, has to take a back seat.
Danish director Lone Scherfig has no problem putting us in Jenny's shoes and getting us to go along with her impulses, but the film doesn't have the heart to work out their implications. Is this a parable about the dangers of taking the quick and easy way out? Why does the movie take the quick, easy way out? Jenny ends up not needing to worry about it, but then why are we following her around in the first place? Is it because she and her story are just so darn photogenic? As Jenny might attest, the most attractive tutors don't always turn out to be the most important ones. (PG-13) 100 min. HHHII