There are some films that feature such a lively, intelligent lead performance at their center that they practically render moot any criticism of those films' shortcomings in other areas. In a sense, An Education is so thoroughly constructed around the flinty vulnerability of newcomer Carey Mulligan that it can almost be mistaken for a film of great quality. In fact, Mulligan alone seems to have an actual stance toward the material at hand, while virtually all other creative personnel are more than happy to let outsized caricature and period detail carry the day. Remove Mulligan, and An Education is a shoddy edifice indeed.
Based on Lynn Barber's memoir essay and adapted by the very busy Nick Hornby (High Fidelity; Fever Pitch), An Education depicts the post-adolescent rush of a 16-year-old suburban British girl in the 1960s, a still-green sophisticate-to-be who cannot wait to abandon dreary convention and dive headlong into Euro-Existential, capital-L Life. Unlike so many contemporaneous Nouvelle Vague dreamers, Jenny (Mulligan) gets what appears to be an opportunity to sever her school ties and swing. She meets the suave David (Peter Sarsgaard) by chance (maybe); he is nearly twice her age, shares her love for classical music, modern art and the Continental night life, and takes a shine to Jenny almost instantly.
Before long, David is whisking her away on overnight trips and causing her to miss school so she can receive a "real" education, far from the stuffy Oxford fast-track of her private schooling. Jenny even looks on with amazement as David schmoozes her uptight lower-middle-class parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) with some well-placed flattery and empty promises of financial support. As in many a female coming-of-age story, David at first seems so practically made to order that one could be forgiven for wondering whether he issued forth from Jenny's precocious imagination. He is indeed real, but naturally he is far less (or depending on your outlook, more) than meets the eye.
But that will be apparent to any viewer by about David's second appearance onscreen. Part of the problem with An Education is that, as constructed by Hornby and realized by Danish director Lone Scherfig (Italian For Beginners, the single least Dogmesque film the Dogme 95 movement ever produced), the film is uncertain in terms of perspective and point of view. Jenny's subjectivity is the crux of the narrative, and Mulligan's ability to convey the tenuous state of blossoming adulthood—from the imperfect but keener vantage point of a truly gifted, highly intelligent young woman—is not only pitch-perfect, it's practically a public service. (Since becoming the father of a girl, I've become acutely aware of the dearth of cinematic depictions of smart young girls and their struggles, at least ones where being smart isn't essentially portrayed as the problem itself.)
But An Education too often veers between occupying Jenny's vision—wise but fallible and rapidly coming into greater knowledge—and an ironic, almost condescending outside stance. How else to account for David's transparent lubriciousness, or Molina's thankless role as Jenny's father, happy to ship his daughter off to Oxford, or David, or whoever can provide the best bargain, as if she were some prize heifer? Most all of the supporting roles, such as Olivia Williams' starchy English teacher or Emma Thompson's Sunday Funnies turn as The Evil British School System, are similarly carved with a cudgel. Is Hornby constitutionally incapable of adapting his manchild mien to the creation of an actual female perspective? Is Scherfig's by-the-numbers middlebrow touch just content to fill in all of Jenny's negative space as serviceably as possible, so as "not to detract"?
Whatever the case, the result is that Jenny's intelligence is shadowed by a gargantuan obviousness, generated by the film itself. It has the inadvertent effect of undermining Jenny's POV, putting us too many unfair steps ahead of Jenny in her journey of self. More than likely, this owes to the almost reflexive desire of people in the film industry to flatter an audience's intelligence, pandering through a conspiratorial attitude of superiority to the story being told. But in the case of An Education, this vaguely sexist movieland glad-handing threatens to suffocate one of the year's finest performances beneath smug mannerist nonsense. As it happens, Carey Mulligan, like Jenny, proves smart enough to navigate these waters.