Once in a while, the inherent magic of a movie will outstrip anything its plot seems to promise. Consider Lone Scherfig’s remarkable new film, An Education. In it, a 16-year-old girl named Jenny, smart just beyond the limits of impertinence, growing up in a London suburb in the pre-Beatles 1960s, meets a sophisticated older man (the melancholic Peter Sarsgaard) devoted to a conspicuous consumption of the very cultural riches she craves, from jazz clubs to Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Of course, she’s soon forced to choose between his Bohemia and her parents’ Respectable Street. Veteran filmgoers may now sort this story somewhere between The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Juno.
Yet none of this does justice to this film’s almost perfect pleasures. An Education uses coming-of-age trappings as a vehicle for hauntingly memorable filmmaking, deftly dodging cliches all the way to its powerful conclusion. It’s a woman’s film in the best sense: When our hero (the astounding Carey Mulligan) finds a route to triumph in the wake of almost annihilating disillusionment, she convincingly puts herself back together on her own terms. Princes need not apply.
Much of the credit goes to Mulligan, whose charismatic performance projects both working intelligence and preternatural grace. Maybe Jenny was never innocent, but we somehow always sense her naivete constantly correcting itself-we watch her thinking as the nightclub boils around her or sitting on the banks of the Seine, seduced, negotiating conversations with people older, though clearly not wiser, than herself. The whole cast is brilliant, though. Sarsgaard maintains a tricky balance between desire and a barely audible conscience. The mask-faced Rosamund Pike shines as a dumb-sweet comrade, and Alfred Molina’s kindly, scared portrayal of Jenny’s father is heartbreakingly fine.
Nick Hornby’s very English script is done perfect justice by Danish director Scherfig, who fills the screen with period touches and underscores each emotion. Jenny’s happiness is announced while she sits curled up at the bottom of stairs, away from mom and dad. It’s a shamelessly moving story that may not be crammed with universal truths or profound insights but is still one of the best-made movies I’ve ever seen.