So many questions come up in An Education: Is the thirtysomething guy dating the 16-year-old girl a pervert? Does it really matter that he's Jewish? How valuable is a classroom when it comes to life lessons? This coming-of-age tale — based on a memoir by Lynn Barber and adapted for the screen by Nick Hornby — answers a few of them. But it also — intriguingly, stubbornly — leaves several unanswered.
Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a "pretty and clever" teen living in 1960s London when smooth-talking David (Peter Sarsgaard), who's twice her age, sweeps her off her feet and introduces her to his fast-living lifestyle. "You have no idea how boring everything was before I met you," she tells him. And you believe her. Her casually racist dad (a terrific Alfred Molina) has misgivings at first, but warms to David after he promises to show Jenny around Oxford, where she hopes to enroll.
Jenny isn't like most of her classmates at the all-girls school she attends. She's smarter, more rebellious and more precocious. When David saves her (and her cello) from a rainstorm, he's chatty and charming. And she's immediately smitten. Their relationship is cerebral at first; eventually it turns sexual.
Sarsggaard — one of our best and underappreciated actors — flawlessly straddles the line between charismatic and slimeball. Olivia Williams is also great as a sympathetic teacher. But the real find here is 24-year-old Mulligan, conveying (and stirring) tons of emotions with just one look. She's totally believable as a 16-year-old girl blossoming into womanhood. It's the best performance of the year.
But the performances wouldn't mean much if the film didn't work on so many other levels. The education David gives Jenny is a valuable, and ultimately harsh, one — something she could never learn in school or in the books she reads. Race issues surface, not only regarding David's background. But more importantly, trust, maturity and responsibility figure into a lesson you won't soon forget.