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In so many ways, in ‘An Education.’

CHARMED AND SMITTEN: Jenny (Carey Mulligan) in "An Education."
  • CHARMED AND SMITTEN: Jenny (Carey Mulligan) in "An Education."

“An Education,” with its rare indefinite article-plus-unmodified noun title, softly portends a lesson learned. It's 1961, London, and Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a 16-year-old Francophilic cellist who smokes, struggles with Latin and has her sights set on Oxford. “I'm going to talk to lots of people who know lots,” she tells a beguiling older stranger, David (Peter Sarsgaard), who offers her and her cello a ride home through the rain one day. It's easy for a man in his early 30s to convince a teen-ager that he knows lots about lots, and as David flatters her tastes in paintings and jazz and mischief, and melts her parents' skepticism, Jenny finds herself bedazzled on the way to bewitched.

The screenplay credit goes to novelist Nick Hornby for adapting newspaper columnist Lynn Barber's memoir, and to Hornby's credit, he stays out of the way of the material. This coming-of-age story rarely feels pat; Dutch director Lone Scherfig keeps the lead couple cute while leaving the threat of physical love to haunt every scene like an unpaid debt. When the time comes for the deed itself, David makes an embarrassing offer that goes to show how dreadfully stupid poor Humbert always was in matters of sex.

For all his adult charm, it's never quite clear why Jenny is smitten with David, or even if she is, even as she succumbs to his advances. More likely, she falls for her own overwhelming indulgence — a life of music and Paris and money ill-gotten spent freely. The yearning for that life, a life away from Virgil translations, away from her father's desperation, a life spent in that delirious seam between intellect and soul, courses through “An Education” like the charge of a first new kiss.

Sarsgaard creates a David with an almost reptilian aspect, warm in appearance but cool to the touch. Every toe on his crow's feet screams that Jenny and her parents (a thundering but vulnerable Alfred Molina and a quietly affecting Cara Seymour) ought to chase this natty tomcat out the door. Mulligan, though, accomplishes a Jenny that feels childish in the right ways, just precocious enough that you hope her formal schooling can't keep her down on the farm. If only she had met a grownup who had actually grown up.

 

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