“This whole, stupid country is boring!” cries Jenny, a book-smart teen itching to get out of the stuffy Twickenham of 1961 and into the cosmopolitan world beyond. But life is about to get a lot less dull for this Oxford-bound naïf, thanks to a gently predatory thirtysomething who whisks her away in his Bristol saloon and satisfies her craving for culture and sophistication in return for her virginity.
It’s a simple coming-of-age story, unfussily adapted by Fever Pitch’s Nick Hornby from columnist Lynn Barber’s memoir. Thanks to a near-perfect mixture of elements, though – compassionate direction from Lone Scherfig, terrific period detail and, above all, a spectacularly winning turn from newcomer Carey Mulligan in the lead role – An Education is a constant delight.
That’s no mean feat for a movie whose male lead is a sleazy cradle-snatcher with several skeletons in his closet. Yet Peter Sarsgaard works hard to make the opportunistic David sympathetic, helped no end by a script which treats him more evenhandedly than Barber does his real-life counterpart.
It helps too that the world he whisks Jenny into is a beguiling one of jazz and champagne, populated by elegant hedonists like Dominic Cooper’s natty Danny and Rosamund Pike’s thick-as-a-plank Helen. It’s only later that Jenny begins to realise how shallow her new existence is – a hard-won discovery achieved with the assistance of Olivia Williams’ quietly affecting English teacher and Emma Thompson’s amusingly stern headmistress.
Elsewhere Alfred Molina is splendid as Jenny’s dad, a blustering buffoon readily taken in by David’s easy charm, while Sally Hawkins has a small but telling cameo late in the story. Ultimately, though, this is Mulligan’s film, the 24-year-old starlet stealing our hearts as surely as Audrey Hepburn did half a century ago with a performance of dimpled sweetness and impish precocity.
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It sounds like a creepy tale of a teenage schoolgirl seduced by a pervert. But it’s also one of this year’s most captivating British dramas, with a breakthrough turn from an actress we’ll be seeing a lot more of.