Their meet-cute is irresistible: there’s Jenny, after school, still in uniform, stuck in the rain with her cello, and here comes David, the older, eloquent stranger in his smart little car, offering to provide shelter not for her but for the beloved instrument, which as an unabashed aesthete he can’t bear to see in peril. So the cello gets the back seat while Jenny, for decorum’s sake—she’s only 16—walks alongside as David drives, slowly, gently questioning her, completing the first part of his seduction. A few scenes later Jenny’s in the passenger seat, and the way she looks at David, her vulnerability nearly palpable, her awe eroticized, all we can think is, man, has he ever done a number on her. That moment carries within it an awful lot of what’s initially wonderful and finally disappointing about An Education. Like David, the film’s deft with persuasion but falls short in the way of follow-through.
Helmed by Danish director Lone Scherfig and adapted by novelist Nick Hornby from Lynn Barber’s memoir, An Education is a coming-of-age tale set in 1961, with London not yet swinging and Paris still holding its position as the world capital of romantic-would-be-sophisticate teenage fantasy. The film’s beguiling enough to leave you uncertain as to how much power comes from Scherfig-Hornby-Babrber’s collective sensitivity to the heights of one’s first brush with adult thrills and how much comes from the immersive quality of Carey Mulligan’s startling central performance. The actress, now in her mid-20s, is a few significant years away from the heady experiences that Jenny—innocent, yes, but smart as a whip—gets her first taste of, but she registers her enrapture as through it’s all still fresh and undigested. She’s radiant and awkward, a child discovering elegance and sex, fixating while just holding a cigarette, listening to Ravel, or sitting motionless, one hand poised on the dining table while her parents argue in the adjoining room.
As David, Peter Sarsgaard, too, is inspired casting, sleepy eyes, smooth talk, an expert listener, and a pretty blatant grifter to anyone with a decent radar—something Jenny’s parents, played by Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour, rather implausibly lack. For as long as we sense only the vague threat of David without knowing quite what he’s up to, the film’s delicate and engrossing. A rake he may be, but David’s endowed with remarkable texture and charisma, so that we never feel that Jenny’s malleability is purely a matter of youth, or of movie convention. The problem starts when Peter exits the picture and turns into a bogeyman. The last round of scenes in which we discover the full extent of David’s deceptions are almost laughable in how they compress exposition into flat melodrama, rushing to resolve Jenny’s crisis, which suddenly boils down to a battle between David and Jenny’s English teacher, who's fighting on the side of feminine independence, social legitimacy, and what Jenny cruelly dismisses as the dread life of an old maid. Jenny’s young and bright and has everything ahead of her, so she recovers from David’s whirlwind fairly quickly, but the movie never quite manages the same feat. I guess buy the ending, I just don’t buy its ostensible consolation.