Novelist and moonlighting screenwriter Nick Hornby shifts his perceptive gaze from pop culture-obsessed men dragged into the scary world of adulthood to the coming-of-age perils of a pop culture-obsessed teenage girl in a terrible hurry to grow up in early-’60s England with An Education, a fine adaptation of journalist Lynn Collins’ memoir directed by Lone Scherfig. An Education shares with Hornby’s best work trenchant insight into the way smart, hyper-verbal young people let the music, films, books, and art they love define themselves as they figure out who they are and what they want to be.
In a star-making performance, the radiant Carey Mulligan plays a precocious schoolgirl whose life changes when mysterious businessman Peter Sarsgaard spots her carrying her cello down the street and whisks her off into a glamorous adult world of nightclubs, shopping, trips, and art. Sarsgaard bribes and sweet talks his way into the good graces of Mulligan’s pathologically status-obsessed father (Alfred Molina) and mother, but the unlikely lovers discover there are things money cannot buy and charm cannot finesse. Emma Thompson and Olivia Williams lead a stellar supporting cast as, respectively, the school’s brutally frank headmistress and a teacher whose icy exterior masks a core of deep idealism.
Sarsgaard’s enigmatic older man carries an ineffable sadness that becomes heartbreaking as the gulf between his ingratiating exterior and true self grows more pronounced. Sarsgaard and Molina exist in a world where lives are circumscribed by money and position. Only the quietly heroic Mulligan has the vision and self-determination to conceive of a future for herself and a changing world where young women aren’t limited to choosing between teaching and becoming a housewife. She’s able to see an Oxford education as something more than just a way to attract a better class of husband. An Education is brutally candid about class in ways that never feel didactic or heavy-handed. It captures with tenderness and wit the exquisite ache of growing up as Mulligan evolves into the architect of her own destiny only after incurring the scars, pain, and brutal disappointment that separate the genuinely wise from the merely precocious.