Perhaps this year’s most buzzed about Sundance movie, director Lone Scherfig’s period drama accomplished more than few things during its Sundance ’09 run. First and foremost, it was one of the most well-executed period films of the festival, bringing to life 1960s Britain in a very authentic way. Secondly, it was one of the best written movies of the festival, deserving of its World Cinema Dramatic Audience Award. And finally, it was one of two movies that helped introduce the world to 22-year old actress Carey Mulligan, who has been likened to Audrey Hepburn with her classic beauty and undeniable charm.
Set in 1961, An Education tells the story of Jenny (Mulligan), an attractive, smart 16-year old London girl headed for an Oxford education and the life that her strict father (Alfred Molina) has always envisioned for her. That is, until she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), a wealthy, cultured 30-year old who takes her to fancy resaurants, art galleries and connects her with the chic French fair that she’s always dreamed of. Resourceful in nature, David tells extravagant lies to Jenny’s parents in order to allow her to spend time with him and his free spirited friends (Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike). But as Jenny gets closer and closer to David, she begins to question whether or not this new chic lifestyle with David is worth sacrificing her future.
Crafted by Nick Hornby — who authored one of my favorite books/films of all-time High Fidelity — Jenny’s story is a clever, engaging coming-of-age tale that calls back to the 1960s in a very authentic way. We are witness to the unraveling of Jenny’s traditional upbringing and her maturation through life experience, something that doesn’t exactly come easy. And even though she is warned by almost everyone in her life — including her favorite school teacher and her school’s headmistress, played by Olivia Williams and Emma Thompson respectively — Jenny seems intent on discovering for herself whether or not David holds the keys to the life she’s always dreamed about.
In the capable hands of Lone Scherfig, An Education is both lively and touching. Most of its charm, of course, comes from the performance of Carey Mulligan. She glows on screen, delivering a performance that is as enchanting and captivating as any we’ve seen in a long while. Alfred Molina also delivers some explosive moments as Jenny’s father, who is constantly caught in the push-pull between his long-held dream of sending his brilliant daughter to Oxford and his desire to see her “taken care of.” The film is also filled with an array of other solid performances — including those of the beautiful Olivia Williams and Dominic Cooper, who plays David’s sensible best friend. The only one that feels out of place at any point is Peter Sarsgaard, who does as fine job as the urbane, witty David, but seems to be playing a role meant for someone like Ewan McGregor instead.
With these great performances and an exceptional handle on Hornby’s brilliant script, Scherfig is able to bring the many layers of this story to vivid life. The production design from Andrew McAlpine (The Piano) is also top-notch, bringing 1960s London to the screen with a strong attention to detail. It provides ample environment for these impressively well-crafted characters to charm us and engage us in their stories. It is the combination of great story, great attention to detail and great performances that makes An Education a truly unforgettable coming-of-age story — the kind of movie that you see at Sundance and hope to see breakthrough later in the year. If there is any justice in the world of movies, Lone Scherfig’s film will make a big splash and its leading lady will become Hollywood’s next it girl.