Carey Mulligan Breaks Through in An Education: Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina Co-Star in Coming of Age Romance

At 24, Britain's Mulligan finds her breakthrough role as Jenny, the smart, pretty teenager in 1961 London whose life changes one rainy day.

Peter Sarsgaard Plays Smooth-Talker David

The setup:

16-year-old Jenny loves the cello and all things French. Her dream is to attend Oxford. As she tells her girlfriends one day after school, "Well, after I've been to University, I'm going to be French. And I'm going to Paris, and I'm going to smoke and wear black and listen to Jacques Brel…"

Those dreams are threatened on a wet afternoon when the drenched Jenny accepts a ride home from David (Peter Sarsgaard), a handsome stranger with a seductive, bemused smile and a cool car. At first, a romance between the teen and the 30-something mystery man seems unthinkable.

But David is one quietly persistent guy.

This is no May-September romance. More like a March-July one, given the respective ages involved.

Love Story Dodges Inherent Pitfall

The ironic title, of course, refers not to Jenny's high school studies, or her Oxford aspirations, but to the life lessons she receives in a relationship everyone sees as wrong, wrong, wrong but which, in her young heart, feels just the opposite.

It's easy for Jenny to fall for David, thanks to that reassuring smile and go-slow approach. He makes everything seem okay, even later on, when he appears almost sociopathic. Sarsgaard's intelligent performance is shaded and engaging. But David's knowing maturity can't mask the inherent ick-factor in the film's premise.

And while that ick-factor is minimized, it nonetheless remains. Mostly, though, screenwriter Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, Fever Pitch) and Danish director Lone Scherfig manage to deftly sidestep the age differential — not an easy thing to do.

Steve Martin Faced Similar Script Dilemma

Ask Steve Martin about the problem. In his 2005 film Shopgirl, Martin's screen relationship with Claire Danes was this-close to creepy. Granted, the age gulf between them was far greater than the characters in An Education. Still, Martin's character came off as calculating and selfish, while Sarsgaard's low-key charm as David helps him mostly dodge the issue.

And unlike in Shopgirl, An Education's creative team tastefully (and wisely) chose not to depict Jenny's deflowering. Instead, there's a meaningful post-coital moment in which David inadvertently reveals to us (but not the unworldly Jenny) that he failed her in a more fundamental way.

Film's Star Reminiscent of Katie Holmes

Newcomer Carey Mulligan seems like a British Katie Holmes, in both looks and on-camera temperament. As Jenny, she's required to appear naive — even as her character struggles to cover her inexperience. Later, after Jenny has become "a woman," she seems outwardly more worldly, only to have that newly-acquired reservoir of self-confidence yanked away by a shocking discovery.

It's a challenging role, one Mulligan handles with grace and subtlety. In this, just her second big screen role (after much TV work in Britain), Mulligan is someone to watch.

As Jenny's parents, Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour are surprisingly passive when it comes to truly protecting their teenage daughter.

Molina's got the far meatier part. As her father Jack, he's torn between his own confused, competing visions for her — as a candidate for Oxford and as a future wife with a comfy life — if only she'd go to more dances and meet a monied guy.

Jack is a paper tiger, all bluster until a smooth operator like David melts his fatherly resolve like a chocolate bar left atop a warm stove.

Emma Thompson Forgettable in Small Role

The great Emma Thompson seems wasted in a one-dimensional role as the disapproving headmistress of Jenny's school. But Olivia Williams is terrific as Jenny's understanding teacher, Miss Stubbs. In several key scenes, she tries vainly to counsel Jenny, only to anguish when her immature charge won't listen.

David's two big secrets help drive the film to its conclusion. The second is nicely hidden until it explodes in the third act.

While the film's conclusion is a bit pat, it doesn't capsize the story. Actually, it does offer a bit of satisfaction to an audience wondering just what will become of Jenny.

An Education, based on a memoir by author Lynn Barber, is the kind of indie darling that gets noticed at awards time. Expect to hear both Mulligan and Sarsgaard's names on Golden Globe and Oscar nomination mornings.

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