Carey Mulligan, in 'An Education'

Dir. Lone Scherfig
(2009, PG-13, 95 min)
★ ★ ★ ½

I want to be Jenny when I grow up. Set in 1960s England, An Education is built on the character, who is only sixteen, and on the performance of her portrayer, Carey Mulligan, who is twenty-four. As written by Nick Hornby (based on Lynn Barber’s memoir), directed by Lone Scherfig, and acted by Mulligan, Jenny is a singular creation: confident but shy, worldly but naive, cosmopolitan but sheltered, yet she is never a contradiction in terms. She is a blossoming young woman, smart, who recognizes the perils of stepping into an unfamiliar world of adults, considers them, and undertakes them anyway, because she must do something that matters, instead of be churned through school and university and deposited into marriage or one of the limited career options available to women in that day and age.

Jenny is an early feminist, a modern voice in a world that doesn’t know what to do with her yet, and she asks questions no one is yet prepared to answer. She wonders about a woman’s future, finding that her devoted English teacher Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams) and the severe headmistress (Emma Thompson) are living contradictions to whatever hope they try to give her about toeing the line. Her father, Jack (Alfred Molina), is concerned with her financial security, and quite sincerely does not understand what other pleasure there can be in life; he pushes her hard to achieve so she can go to Oxford, but if she can marry well, there’s no point of schooling, is there?

An alluring older man comes into her life: David (Peter Sarsgaard), who appreciates music, visits France, knows glamorous people, and goes to classical concerts and jazz clubs. He is an all-access pass to everything she wants in life. Is he a creep for his unwholesome interest in a sixteen-year-old girl? Yes, we suspect, and that fact is not lost even on his friends Danny and Helen (Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike), who share knowing glances. But their romance is not played as a victimization; that would be unfair to Jenny, who understands, better than her easily smitten parents, what she’s getting into, but abandons caution for the sake of love and discovery. Consider a scene in Paris where she regards lovemaking; she is no victim and no fool.

But she is still a girl, and she learns a lot of things the hard way. Yet she also has a lot to teach. For her befuddled family, teachers, and peers, she is a harbinger of the free-spirit generation that will shape the later ‘60s and ‘70s — a bohemian revolution of girls and boys who will discover that their schools and universities aren’t the only education they need.