There are some filmmakers who can make you believe that they've lived in one area all of their lives by the way they portray it, but then turn out to be from somewhere completely different. Examples of this would be Krysztof Kielslowski's Trois Couleurs trilogy, Sam Mendes' studied portraits of American life, and Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns. An Education is perhaps the most British film of the year, but its surprising to learn that its under the steady hand of Danish director Lone Scherfig.
An Education takes place in swinging '60s London, focusing on young schoolgirl Jenny (Carey Mulligan). Jenny is the epitome of the new youth generation that emerged both in the United States and Europe during the '60s: she's a French-loving, literature-reading young girl who dreams of studying English literature and seeing the world. However, her strict, conservative father (Alfred Molina) is stringent about her getting into Oxford, and insists that she focus on her schoolwork instead of extra activities (except, of course, youth orchestra, since that will look good to the Board of Admissions). Jenny's world is broadened when she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), an older man who is apparently everything she ever wanted, and shows Jenny the world.
The film's title of course has two meanings: Jenny is trying to get an education in academics through Oxford, but she is also learning from David the realities of the world she is growing into and will be forced to live in outside of school. Its a classic coming-of-age tale, but avoids the usual trappings of such films by staying true to the nature of the characters, allowing Jenny to become a full-fledged woman with multiple dimensions rather than become a caricature of youthful ignorance.
This is the result of three fantastic elements coming together: actress, writer, and director. Carey Mulligan shines as Jenny, her wide, glistening eyes taking in the world she's entered with amazement, but also never once letting herself become vulnerable. She's constantly referred to as "clever," and Mulligan herself is an incredibly clever actress, letting Jenny screw up royally without letting her lose any of her dignity. If there was ever a portrait of what a real, strong woman looks like, Mulligan's Jenny is just that. Of course, writer Nick Hornby's excellent adaptation of Lynn Barber's memoir provides excellent dimension to all the characters, always keeping the dialogue interesting and fluid. And Scherfig's naturalistic direction is painted with the flourishes of '60s London, giving the film a lively, exciting atmosphere as we get to see the world the way Jenny does: fresh, new, and wonderful.
Yes, that is the man who was once Doc Ock.
In what is perhaps the most criminally underrated performance of the year, Alfred Molina shines as Jenny's strict-but-loving father. He never falters in his performance, giving the character the uptight-dad side without sacrificing the genuine care and love for his daughter. He is a conflicted man, seduced by David just as much as Jenny is, and creates a complicated portrait of a father of a young girl growing up.
An Education's a deft, excellently-crafted film, brimming with the possibilities of growing up without ignoring the consequences.