It takes a fair amount of hubris to sit down and write a memoir. Good writers frequently incorporate aspects of their personal lives into their work, to be sure, but usually those aspects have been embellished, altered or recontextualized to the point where even friends and relations might not recognize them. It’s another matter to think, “The unvarnished truth of what happened to me could potentially be of great interest to the entire world.” In the case of British journalist Lynn Barber, whose banal adolescence forms the basis for An Education, it’s hard to fathom quite where that self-regard came from—surely she must know that her experience was by no means unique, or even particularly unusual. But her alter ego is played here by a striking newcomer, and the literate, often witty script was penned by novelist Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy), and that’s just about enough to create, at least for the film’s duration, the impression of a story that’s far more interesting than it actually is.
Set in suburban London in 1961, An Education focuses almost entirely on the extra-scholastic adventures of 16-year-old Jenny (Carey Mulligan), an Oxford-bound prize pupil with a serious jones for all things artistic and sophisticated—double bonus points if they’re French. Walking home in the rain with her cello one day, she’s given a lift by professed music lover David (Peter Sarsgaard, sporting a low-key British accent), who immediately commences wooing this pert schoolgirl despite being twice her age. Jenny, needless to say, is intoxicated by David’s heady world of concerts, auctions and whirlwind trips to (omigod omigod!) Paris; with the full consent of her once-protective parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour), she promptly abandons her university plans with the intention of becoming Mrs. Glamorous. But David has a wee secret, and if you don’t already know what it is, you badly need an education of your own.
Since young women have been surrendering their virtue to charming cads for approximately all of human history, An Education’s only real point of interest, beyond its fetching surface, is the precise moment at which it takes place: two years before The Feminine Mystique, when the only apparent choices for women were wife and mother or spinster librarian. Unfortunately, Hornby feels compelled to spell out that theme via lengthy, on-the-nose speeches, with lines like “It’s not enough for you to educate us—you have to tell us why you’re doing it!” He also stacks the deck with an assortment of supporting characters who function solely as broad, cautionary stereotypes: the age-appropriate but woefully maladroit suitor (Matthew Beard); the ditzy blond eye candy (Rosamund Pike, doing wonders with a terribly shallow role); the lonely, starched-up teacher (Olivia Williams). That some of them eventually get tossed an additional dimension doesn’t change the fact that they initially exist only to aggravate Jenny’s momentary lapse in judgment.
On the other hand, sociology isn’t necessarily what we seek at the movies. Star turns matter, too, and Mulligan, who appears in just about every frame, gives the sort of fiercely intelligent yet winsome performance that makes even hard-hearted critics swoon. Whether she has any range or staying power remains to be seen, but it’s certainly not hard to understand why David—well played by Sarsgaard as one of those slicksters who genuinely believes his own bullshit—would be instantly drawn to Jenny’s dangerous mix of self-possession and naïveté. Together, these two actors nearly succeed in making An Education’s thoroughly commonplace tale of youthful disillusion seem fresh.