Polished period piece with powerful performances.
As directors go, we don't see an awful lot of Lone Scherfig. However, she was responsible for 2002's most excellent Wilbur (Wants To Kill Himself) so it would behoove us to pay attention to her output. For An Education, she directs Nick Hornby's adaptation of Lynn Barber's memoir, at which point there's now enough talent behind the camera to warrant immediate investigation. So, let's do that.
Twickenham in the 60's doesn't exactly swing. Indeed, the girls school that soon to be 16 year old Jenny Mellor (Carey Mulligan) finds herself in barely sways in a strong wind. Her almost stereotypically middle class English father Jack (Alfred Molina) does his best to drive Jenny's studies along. It is, after all, vital to receive An Education to allow her to go off to Oxbridge university and "get on" in life, for some vague, undefined value of getting on.
This excellent plan is thrown into disarray on meeting the charming, erudite and apparently loaded David (Peter Sarsgaard) who soon makes his romantic intentions known, despite being about double her age. Soon he's taking her on romantic trips and so forth, beguiling her parents into allowing this, and generally performing a variety of activities that do not involve An Education in the formal, scholastic sense. Of course, it's not all cupcakes and frosting, as this is a drama after all.
An Education is a coming of age tale, albeit one drenched with a coating of nostalgia for an era I can't really comment on. What with me not being alive then and all. Jenny is left to ask questions of what exactly she's looking for in this life, and whether or not that's best served by slaving away in service of a university place or if the best course of action is the more immediately impressive, flashy life it appears David could provide for her.
So is examining her life worth the time and effort? I'd say so. Mulligan proves to be a charming and captivating central performer, and Sarsgaard proves to be equally effective in his role. Support from Rosamund Pike and Dominic Cooper is equally polished, although it proves to be Molina who steals most of his scenes. There is no weak link in the piece, and it's recommended as a fine example of ensemble casting as much as anything else.
While it's certainly not the most narratively driven work you'll find, as a character and a period piece it's well into the top tier, and it makes a reasonable case for including itself in the films of 2009 lists. It may, perhaps, not quite make it due to the almost unreasonably strong showing from the first six months of that year, but it's certainly a film you should see.
Alfred Molina (Jack)