Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a 16-year-old growing up in the London suburb of Twickenham in 1961, is always the first in class to raise her hand with the answer. She is fluent in French and studying Latin; she plays the cello and is familiar with all the pre-Raphaelite artists (Rossetti and Burne-Jones are her favorites; Holman Hunt, not so much).
Jenny's smarts are not born of a bookish nature: This pretty, personable, spirited girl excels at her studies because she is hellbent on getting into Oxford and away from her drab, dullsville surroundings. Then, one rainy afternoon, the thirtysomething David (Peter Sarsgaard) pulls into her life - literally, in a snazzy maroon Bristol sports car - and everything changes. Suddenly, Jenny doesn't have to wait for Oxford anymore. With his glamorous friends and fancy cigarettes, his visits to concert halls, theaters and museums and trips to Paris, David provides the sort of excitement and stimulation Jenny assumed she would never taste until she grew up. "There's so much I want you to see," the rakish, sharp-dressed man tells Jenny. And she can't wait to let him show her.
An Education, directed by Lone Scherfig (Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself) and adapted by novelist Nick Hornby from a memoir by British journalist Lynn Barber, has a deeply unsettling premise at its center: This essentially is the story of a minor exploited and manipulated by an older and deceitful man. But the movie, like Jenny and David's relationship, is light and comical and fabulous, the queasy darkness held at bay at the film's edges.
Mulligan, a British actress whose screen presence rightfully has been compared to that of Audrey Hepburn, is nobody's victim. She's well aware of the risks she's taking. She controls the sexual component of the affair from the outset (she refuses to lose her virginity until she's 17, the legal age of the era), and she knows David is a schemer and liar from the minute he meets and utterly disarms her parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour). Jenny continues the relationship even after she witnesses David and his business partner and friend Danny (Dominic Cooper) at their shady line of work.
She's willing to overlook everything because she's in love -- if not with the man, then with the possibilities and lifestyle he affords her. David doesn't so much buy her things as bring her experiences, and for an intellectually curious and educated young woman waiting for her life to begin in a sleepy, uptight, not-yet-swinging London, the temptation is too huge to pass up.
Mulligan may be An Education's star attraction (and may well derail Meryl Streep's Julie & Julia Best Actress Oscar hopes next year), but every role in the film has been impeccably cast and acted: Molina as Jenny's amusingly oblivious father; Emma Thompson as the school's imperious (and racist) principal and Rosamund Pike as Danny's glamorous, endearingly bubble-headed girlfriend.
The film wouldn't work at all, though, if Sarsgaard didn't strike the perfect balance between shady predator and lovestruck fool. An Education keeps David's most inner thoughts private - this is Jenny's education, not his -but Sarsgaard brings considerable complexity and shading to a part that easily could have become a cartoon. When David looks at Jenny, you see a man who is perfectly aware of what he's doing, but you also catch glimpses of a conflicted conscience, too. Like Jenny will soon learn, An Education argues that life - and the human heart - are far too complicated merely to be studied. They need to be experienced. But there's no point in rushing things, either.
An Education opens Friday, Oct. 30 at the Regal South Beach and Shadowood.