Jenny (Carey Mulligan) was a sixteen-year-old English schoolgirl in 1961, trying her best to live up to her parents' dream for her to go to Oxford to study. She dutifully did her homework, learned Latin and French, and played the cello in the school orchestra, with the result that she was one of the brightest pupils in her year. And then one day, something changed when she had been at orchestra practice and was waiting for a bus in the pouring rain; a car drew up and a man called over to her, telling Jenny he was a music lover who hated to see a good instrument get soaked. One thing led to another and soon she was in his car, being driven home...
An Education was drawn from a memoir by journalist Lynn Barber, a tale of what happened to her while she was still a teenager and how it altered her life, both in good ways and bad. She admitted that what occurred had maybe done too much damage to her perception of other people for her to be comfortable with, yet the point that director Lone Scherfig and writer Nick Hornby wished to get across was that every major experience in life was, as the title says, an education, and therefore came in useful to shaping the person you become as an adult. Those experiences may be good and beneficial, on the other hand they may be the opposite, but you cannot say you had not learned something from them.
At least that was the idea, and with this film they put up a convincing argument, helped in no small measure by an exceptional cast. Carey Mulligan found herself with an Oscar nomination for her trouble, which raised her profile even higher than when she was the "best Doctor Who companion who never was" when she had starred in the celebrated Blink episode, and her performance here, never too self-assured and just the right side of naive, was excellent. But then, she was well catered for in the supporting thesps, featuring as they did a host of familiar faces proving they didn't need to be showy and over the top to make an impression on an audience.
As the parents, Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour summed up the ideal suburban, lower middle class mindset of the day, something that Jenny belongs to and is also trying to escape from. Dad is a hard taskmaster, mum more forgiving, but you can see that they are both living through the chances that they wish their daughter to grasp and flourish with, whether it's attending university or, when it arises, a possible marriage that Jenny might not be ready for. But the better she gets to know the twice her age man in the car, the more she thinks she is at home in his company: he is confident, well-read, articulate and obviously likes her a lot, and the feeling is mutual; if you're waiting for the twist, rest assured it happens along eventually, but a little too late for Jenny.
This man is David (Peter Sarsgaard), and he is accompanied by two stylish friends, Danny (Dominic Cooper), who may be shadier than he lets on, and Helen (Rosamund Pike), who may not be as intelligent as she appears or Jenny wants her to be. This quartet visit concerts, art galleries, restaurants and manage to coax Jenny away from the bosom of her family, as all the while she gets to thinking this is too good to be true, but is not about to turn her nose up at a fast track to the kind of moneyed lifestyle that she sees she deserves. All the while her English teacher (Olivia Williams) seethes that she is throwing away a different sort of education, one which involves the hard work and brain power that Jenny is eschewing; Emma Thompson shows up too as the headmistress from hell. If this is predictable as far as the plot goes, you can throroughly enjoy the acting and a message that may be more a stern "stay in school, kids" than "enjoy yourself while you're young, kids", but has you persuaded by the close. Jenny does both. Music by Paul Englishby.