An Education (PG-13) (95 min.) — Carey Mulligan will be a major movie star. You sense it from the moment she first appears in this spirited film as a naively mischievous schoolgirl in 1961 England, to the finale when her character Jenny is a wise, confident woman. Jenny is only a year older when An Education ends but, as the title suggests, she learns much in that brief time, with Mulligan coaxing viewers through each maturation step.
This is a starmaking performance, full of casual nuances revealing plenty, from an emerging actor whose dimples threaten to swallow her petite face each time she smiles. Audrey Hepburn is a popular comparison among critics; a luminous screen presence gaining audience affection without seeming to try. Mulligan, 24, has plenty of time to waste such potential. Like Jenny when An Education ends, we're pretty sure she won't.
Jenny is 16, living in England before the rock 'n' roll epiphany of Pirate Radio, when rebellion means sneaking cigarettes during prep school breaks. She lives dutifully with doting parents (Alfred Molina, Cara Seymour), hoping to attend Oxford, which her parents can't afford. With friends she behaves like a budding bon vivant, quoting existential authors and feigning more sexual awareness than she has.
No surprise, then, that the appearance of dashing David (Peter Sarsgaard), a man twice her age with tales of Parisian escapades, captures Jenny's fancy. He politely courts her and her parents, anticipating their objections like a chess player, countering with white lies. Sex is a possibility. She begins joining David and his friends (among them, impressive Rosamund Pike) for weekends without chaperones that David promised Jenny's parents. Everything works, until it doesn't. That's when Jenny's education kicks in.
An Education is based on a memoir by Lynn Barber, a British journalist with a reputation for making her subjects squirm. If half of this story is true, you see where she got her nose for deception. David isn't what he seems, as men too good to be true often aren't. The screenplay is by Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy), whose talent for tweaking romantic expectations is invaluable here.
That's never more so than with Mulligan, who adds depth and tartness to her lines that would escape most young actors, and star quality that comes around too infrequently. She's being touted as a best actress Oscar frontrunner. Don't miss An Education before the bandwagon gets too full. A
Steve Persall, Times film critic