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An Education

A Solid Period Piece

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

An Education, a coming-of-age drama directed by Lone Scherfig (Just Like Home, Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, Italian for Beginners) and adapted by Nick Hornby (About a Boy, Fever Pitch, High Fidelity) from Lynn Barber’s memoir, arrives in North American movie theaters ten months after it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this past January. Minus a third-act stumble, the praise received on the festival circuit for An Education -- Scherfig’s unobtrusive direction, Hornby’s deft screenplay and newcomer Carey Mulligan’s performance as Jenny -- is more than justified.

Set in a pre-feminist, pre-counter-cultural 1961, An Education follows 16-year old Jenny (Mulligan), as she navigates the life choices that will determine her future in an England that offers limited opportunities to young women. Jenny’s goal-oriented father, Jack (Alfred Molina), pressures Jenny to work hard and keep up her grades so she can enter Oxford University. He also pushes Jenny to polish her Oxford application with extracurricular activities, including a youth orchestra (Jenny plays the cello) while Jenny’s housewife mother, Majorie (Cara Seymour), quietly acquiesces.

Jack is not alone in seeing Jenny’s potential: one of her teachers, Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams), also does. Meanwhile, Graham (Matthew Beard), one of Jenny’s classmates and fellow youth orchestra members, awkwardly pursues a romantic relationship with Jenny, but Jenny shows little interest.

It’s not until Jenny encounters David (Peter Sarsgaard), an older man who offers her and her cello a lift after she is stuck in the rain, that she begins to question her assumptions about her future. David, an older man who drives a fancy sports car, wines and dines the impressionably Jenny, and later, charms her parents as well. Along with his best friend, Danny (Dominic Cooper), and Danny’s girlfriend, Helen (Rosamund Pike), David offers Jenny a life (and a lifestyle) she’s only dreamed of: expensive dinners, jazz clubs, classical concerts, and even a trip to Paris, France. As Jenny falls further into David’s orbit, getting into Oxford becomes a secondary concern.

It’s at that point, where two mutually exclusive alternatives present themselves to Jenny, that An Education stumbles and doesn’t fully recover. Scherfig and Hornby set up a clear dilemma for Jenny: academics vs. the easy life. But rather than have Jenny resolve the dilemma herself, it’s resolved for her by a third-act revelation that, whatever its connection to Barber’s memoir, still feels false and unsatisfying. For the first and second acts, however, An Education is a finely balanced mix of coming-of-age tale, period drama, well-drawn characters, and smart, witty dialogue (a Hornby specialty).

But if An Education’s third-act problems knock it from year-end Top 10 lists or Best Picture or Best Adapted Screenplay consideration at next spring’s Academy Awards, the uniformly note-perfect performances deserve some recognition, beginning, unsurprisingly, with Carey Mulligan’s expressive, nuanced performance. Mulligan captures the romantic naiveté and the burgeoning self-awareness of the intelligent, intellectually gifted Jenny. As Jenny’s father, Alfred Molina gives an award-worthy performance as well. Molina keeps his occasional tendency to overplay particular roles in check. Jack may be, at times, overbearing and overprotective, but he’s never an authoritarian caricature.