Note: The following review could contain some spoilers. While I personally feel there is nothing that hasn't been stated in most other reviews, a couple of people have complained, so I felt it worth mentioning. Please keep in mind this is a rare exception and I try to keep all of my reviews spoiler-free.
An Education is a film that is wholly worth seeing for its terrific performances and some moments of genuine drama, but when looked at as a whole, it isn't much more than a competent entry into the very crowded coming-of-age genre. Directed by Lone Scherfig and adapted by Nick Hornby from a memoir by Lynn Barber, this is a film that is only willing to sacrifice a safe amount of its protagonist's well-being, and that's where its main faults lie. While I was watching this film, I didn't get the sense that it wanted to be something more than a slightly above average film, and the completely conventional ending confirmed my suspicions.
So much has been said about Carey Mulligan's lead performance as Jenny, and she is riveting. However, it is tough for me to say she is the main reason to see this film because the entire ensemble is at the top of their game. Mulligan's Jenny is a teenage student whose life revolves around her studies and her cello thanks to her strict, but caring -- and remarkably naive -- parents played by Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour. She is well on her way to Oxford and a serious relationship is one of the furthest things from her mind.
Then, one rainy day, she meets the dashing and confident David, played with remarkable bravura by Peter Sarsgaard. Jenny is taken with him immediately, but as David is able to slowly but surely woo her parents into his corner, their relationship begins to take them to places like Oxford and France. Of course, they do not go alone, but rather with another couple, Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike). We suspect there might be something wrong with their relationship, but the script is only willing to answer so many questions in this film.
David and Jenny's relationship stays relatively chaste until she decides to lose her virginity to David on her 17th birthday. These somewhat sexual scenes (the film is rated PG-13) are expertly filmed by Lone Scherfig and they feel genuine and realistic rather than awkward and corny. This is also what makes Sarsgaard's character so interesting because we can tell he's not entirely truthful, but he also seems like he really cares about this young woman.
In my opinion, Sarsgaard's David is the most interesting character in the film. Mulligan turns in a great performance, but her character is rather predictable, and our feelings towards her stay pretty much the same throughout the film. On the other hand, David becomes an increasingly fascinating study with each new thing we learn about him, and Sarsgaard's performance is certainly Oscar nomination quality. He is charming and funny, slimy and off-putting, and he pulls it all off in such a subtle manner. He is terrific.
My main problems with this film are the storyline and the ending. To me, the film really didn't seem to move along in a very coherent way. One minute, Jenny and David are fighting about where he gets his money from, and the next they are discussing when they are going to make love for the first time. In one scene, Jenny's teacher Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams) -- who I really would have liked to see more of -- is trying to convince her about ending the relationship, and before we know it Jenny is arguing with the Headmistress (Emma Thompson) about the worthiness of a degree. The film tries to fit so many things into its short running time that it eventually comes up short in each area and makes its primary purpose seem very unclear.
I was rather pleased with the way Jenny and David's relationship came to an end; that is not the ending I am disappointed with. Rather, it is the last ten minutes that really confirmed the film's conventionality for me. The films title seemed cheap to me because by the end of the film, I didn't really feel that Jenny made her new decisions based on some kind of newfound knowledge she gained about life, but rather out of pure desperation. She relies on the help of Miss Stubbs to secure her future and Hornby's script attributes a thirty second voice-over at the end to somehow confirm for us that Jenny is happy and content with her life.
In the end, this is a film that is worth seeing because of Mulligan and Sarsgaard. They are both much better than the unfocused script. There are so many subplots in this film that we learn nothing of, but we sense that the filmmakers expect us to learn something by learning nothing. It's still a solid film, I just don't think it's quite the awards darling most people are making it out to be.