It's Britain in 1961. Jenny is a world-weary 16, with her road in life already lain out before her: Oxford (Latin grades permitting), then either marriage or a career following in the footsteps of her instructors. Excitement isn't really on the agenda; excitement still means the Blitz in the minds of her elders, and loud noises in the night, and is something to be avoided at all costs.
Jenny's careful road ahead finds a detour, though, when she crosses paths with a dead-sexy maroon Bristol 405 (look it up, you philistine! You're on the internet!) driven by the equally dead-sexy David, a charming ne'er-do-well twice her age...
It's very, very hard to find something new to say in a coming-of-age story. Hell, we've all lived our own*, so anything pop culture puts together on that front already has the high bar of self-centeredness to clear. That said, if anyone is qualified to make the attempt, Nick Hornby's the guy to do it. Between High Fidelity and About a Boy he's set the gold standard for modern tales of arrested adolescence finally bursting forth into grown-up bloom.
Which is maybe why I can't decide whether I'm surprised he turned out to be such a perfect choice to write An Education or not. An Education is almost the polar opposite of those two stories -- Hornby's previous efforts in the genre have been from the perspective of a David, not a Jenny. But perhaps it was exactly that experience which allowed him to see the story from the other side.
It helps that everybody else working on the movie is uniformly brilliant. Lone Scherfig, best known (until now, methinks) for Italian for Beginners, is an effortlessly excellent storyteller in her own right. She knows where to look to find the little details that magnify the whole, and how to keep things flowing in perfectly natural and yet still surprising ways. And she gets amazing work out of an amazing cast. Peter Sarsgaard is the quintessential British charmer, the kind of guy for whom they would have had to invent words like 'rake' and 'cad' and 'bounder' if they didn't already exist. Alfred Molina is inevitably tremendous as Jenny's dad, while Cara Seymour quietly matches Molina chop for chop as Jenny's mum, and Emma Thompson and Olivia Williams both give sharp turns as faculty at Jenny's school.
But the movie hinges on the actress portraying Jenny herself, and there Scherfig struck gold. Carey Mulligan (probably best known to you lot as Sally Sparrow in the Doctor Who episode Blink) is note-perfect as the smart, capable Jenny, a girl who knows where she's going and knows she can handle anything life throws at her... right up until the moment the bottom drops out and she finds out she can't. The part requires a really delicate balancing act between strength and vulnerability, between self-awareness and self-absorbsion, and Mulligan dances along that line like a ballerina. She's an absolute gem, more than up to the task of going toe to toe with the likes of Thompson or Molina, and someone well worth keeping an eye on.
The other thing that sets An Education apart is its setting. In many ways the film isn't just Jenny's coming-of-age story, it's Britain's too. The country became dreadfully dull and safe post-war, but as the 60s began the country started to find its voice again. It's that new, dangerous, exciting Britain that David introduces Jenny too, that David represents, and Jenny's awakening to the fact that she has the power to choose which road to take (the drab, safe one or the exciting, dangerous one) mirrors Britain's own.
Well worth seeing, not just to watch Mulligan blossom into a star but simply to enjoy a story worth telling, being told very well.
* - 93.23% of AICN Talkbackers excepted