Carey Mulligan leads the cast, including Peter Sarsgaard, Dominic Cooper, Olivia Williams and Alfred Molina with a strong and charming performance, and should easily be in contention come Oscar season. For such a young actor to shoulder so much and with such ability is truly phenomenal; she will be a bright shining star. To stand out in a crowd of accomplished actors such as Emma Thompson and the aforementioned Molina is truly incredible, yet she is able to avoid the trappings of cliche and imbues her character will a wilfulness and originality that elevates this film from its pedestrian roots.
Mulligan plays the sweet natured and strong willed Jenny, a schoolgirl with an Oxford education in her future and only the trials of exams and a laughably inadequate schoolboy suitor to navigate before her real life begins in earnest. An ostensibly random meeting with a wealthy and sophisticated man casts a light on an alternative path for her future, one that has previously been hidden from her: that she might follow her heart rather than her head and replace Oxford libraries with Parisian jazz clubs. The family unit, headed by Molina and Cara Seymour, rounds on Jenny, stressing the importance of her education. She has a choice to make and so the story is set.
The beauty of this film is partly in the performances, but credit is due to Nick Hornby’s outstanding script for illuminating the realism of the character dynamics while allowing the eccentricities of the causal racism and outmoded sensibilities their place. The pacing of the film contributes to a natural evolution of plot and is driven by the characters and as the path Jenny is walking becomes muddled with revelations the generic plot devices are touched on rather than relied on to bring a satisfying conclusion that earns the rewards it brings.
An Education is an apt title, as almost every character undergoes enlightenment of one kind or another. The overlapping layers and interweaving character arcs provide the film with a touching and original tone, and the delicacy with which it plays out is a joy to behold. It is funny, moving and capable of melting your heart. The direction is magnificent and Scherfig is to be commended for eliciting such powerful performances from her cast and creating a flawless world of schoolgirl crushes on the precipice of adulthood and the tribulations of that great unknown. It is not mired in these questions, nor does it offer a superficial narrative of awkward sexual encounters and pantomime parents. It creates something unique out of something quite ordinary and that is an achievement indeed.
This is a phenomenal year for British film and there is much we can learn as an industry from this film. Not every film set in the 1960s has to look like Austin Powers. London does not have an endless supply of red routemaster buses orbiting its streets. We don’t all live in Zones 1 and 2 of the capital. We have a rich cultural heritage and identity but more importantly we have a wealth of talent and stories that can be harnessed and celebrated on screen to create something extraordinary.
Somewhere between the suburban nuclear meltdowns of Mike Leigh and Richard Curtis’s two sugars with his tea lies An Education, and we have much to learn from this remarkable film.