Discovering poignant lessons on love and life

By Ann Hornaday
Friday, October 30, 2009

Carey Mulligan is this season's "It" girl, and you can see why in "An Education," the British actress's breakout film in which she delivers a radiant, deceptively simple performance. Sixteen-year-old Jenny lives in London with her anxious, ambitious parents, who are channeling all their post-war striving into aspirations for their bright, pretty daughter. Jenny is headed to Oxford and, presumably, better things when she crosses paths with David (Peter Sarsgaard), a handsome older man who takes her under his wing and shows her the finer things in life: art, music, good food and the silky, slippery slope of seduction.

Screenwriter Nick Hornby and director Lone Scherfig have adapted Lynn Barber's memoir to near-perfection, capturing British life in 1961 as an era between the '50s and the Youth Revolution. And Jenny -- innocent yet knowing, virginal yet carnal, not a girl and not yet a woman -- embodies just that potent, liminal state. Mulligan delivers a beguiling performance as a young woman in full bloom, who longs to leave childhood behind but, as revealed in the film's shattering climactic scene, still cries like a little girl.

As self-assuredly as Mulligan dominates "An Education," direct your attention, please, to its outstanding cast of supporting players, including Sarsgaard (flawlessly cast as the master manipulator), Alfred Molina as Jenny's desperate father and the sublime Rosamund Pike, who steals each of her scenes as a gorgeous, supremely clueless friend of David's. The only false note is struck in the movie's final three minutes -- the rushed, pat pacing that is completely out of keeping with the deliberate proceedings that have gone before. "An Education" offers too many delicious ambiguities, too many messy layers of culpability and self-deception, to merit such a pretty, too-tidy pink bow.

*** PG-13. At area theaters. Contains mature themes involving sexual content and smoking. 100 minutes.

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