An English schoolgirl in 1961 didn't have much to look forward to. She went to university, if she was smart enough, then became a teacher or civil servant. Or she married well (or well enough) and retired to domestic drudgery with a husband who had no imagination.
Or she dreamed of Paris, which is the dilemma faced by Jenny (Carey Mulligan), the central figure of An Education. She's 16, and dangerously bright and quick-witted -- the Alexis Bledel type, an ur-Juno. So imagine her ecstasy when, on an uncompromisingly rainy London day after youth-orchestra practice, David (Peter Sarsgaard) happens by to proffer a ride.
He's much older, and very charming. Proper, too: When she balks, he invites just her cello into the car, and he gives her money to buy a new one if he drives off with it. He takes her to a concert, something on which her practical father (Alfred Molina) would never waste his money. Then comes a trip to Oxford to meet C.S. Lewis, and then to her beloved Paris, all chaperoned by David's Aunt Helen, who's actually a blonde chippie sleeping with Danny (Dominic Cooper), David's sleazy-business partner.
For a while, An Education is a wonderful movie, the story of a girl who's done all of her reading and who's ready now to start putting it into practice. She knows what she wants and has long planned to lose her virginity on her 17th birthday, which to David's good fortune is a racing heartbeat away. Mulligan is actually 23, and her authenticity as Jenny suffers for it. But if you use your imagination, there's still much pleasure in watching Jenny react to her widening world with a mixture of credulity and confidence.
As Jenny's story unfolds, so does one about the women of her time and place. She comes home from the concert to find her once-vivacious mother scrubbing away at a casserole dish, and her prickly principal (Emma Thompson) cautions her that life is immutably hard and dull. So Jenny snaps back: "It's not enough to educate us any more. You've got to tell us why you do it." Step aside for a new generation.
Then An Education moves into a third act that I can best describe as miscalculated. It may all be true -- screenwriter Nick Hornby (About a Boy) adapted Lynn Barber's memoir -- but the plotting is too clumsy to feel like it actually happened. We learn one of David's secrets early on -- he moves black families into homes next to racists and then buys the latter out -- but his others are both too familiar and a little hard to believe.
An Education is only 95 minutes long, and director Lone Scherfig slights the more complicated and morally ambiguous elements of the drama. She does handle her two leads well, and Sarsgaard especially stretches here, keeping David's motives nicely shaded, even after he's revealed to be the serpent who opens Jenny's eyes.
Starts Fri., Nov. 20. Manor