An Education is based on the memoir by the journalist and interviewer Lynn Barber, with a screenplay by Nick Hornby, and, although the word from all the various festivals has been that it is wonderful, I know you will not believe it unless you hear it from me so here you are: it is wonderful. I am even hoping that now we’ve had the book and the film it isn’t the end of Ms Barber spin-offs, and that there may be a dedicated theme park or, failing that, at least an action doll. I don’t know what form it would take exactly, but would expect it to really kick butt, and probably smoke quite a lot.
The memoir, which first appeared in the literary magazine Granta, recounted Lynn’s schoolgirl affair with a conman, an associate of Peter Rachman’s, whom she very nearly married. Here, though, the names have been changed — to allow Hornby more freedom, I’m guessing — and so now it is Jenny (Carey Mulligan), who, in 1961, is an Oxford-bound 16-year-old schoolgirl living at home in Twickenham with her mother (Cara Seymour) and father (Alfred Molina) and who, one day, is picked up by a dashing older man in a red Bristol sports car, brrrm, brrrm. This is David (Peter Sarsgaard), who is suave and sophisticated and courts Jenny with vast bouquets of flowers — ‘Must be ten bob’s worth!’ exclaims her father, astonished — and invitations to ‘supper’, something Jenny has heard of but never experienced. Her parents, whom Jenny rather looks down on, just as they rather look down on themselves, are as charmed by David as Jenny is. If Jenny’s academic career isn’t going to legitimise them in some way, then maybe this relationship will do it. Molina plays dad as sometimes funny, sometimes sad, but always in a cardigan.
This, though, is the kind of film that has to be all about its central performance and, although the word has been that Carey Mulligan is sensational, I know you won’t believe it unless you hear it from me so: she is sensational. One minute she’s a swotty sixth-former and the next she’s a sex-ripe, audacious Audrey Hepburn with the most deliciously dark eyes and dimples, and yet both are Jenny. She is in every single scene, more or less, and I never tire of watching her. I could, in fact, watch her until the cows come home (which, today, isn’t until quite late, as they have lacrosse and then extra Latin. They, too, are thinking Oxford).
Although this could, I suppose, have been a TV drama, director Lone Scherfig (Danish, if you are wondering) has turned it into something that deserves you get off your backside and give it your sustained attention. Time, place, mood...all beautifully conveyed. Jenny’s life minus David is just kind of dark-brown: dark-brown home, dark-brown cello, dark-brown school. And, if her headmistress’s office is not a dark-brown, it is only because it is pine, and therefore a slightly lighter-brown. Emma Thompson is that headmistress, and, although she only has a few lines, she nails it every time, of course. She also has the most peculiar dental work, which may or may not be worth a mention, but I’ve done it now.
But when David takes Jenny somewhere — to a concert, to Paris, to bed! — the screen then fills with light and colour and pizzazz. We are seeing this through Jenny’s eyes, remember; seeing how glamorous and exciting this all looks to her, and we can see it. Even the nightclubs look glamorous, and I hate nightclubs, and even the dog racing at Walthamstow looks glamorous, and I once went to the dogs at Walthamstow and it was horrid. And Jenny is not just in love with David, but also his friends, Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen, outstandingly portrayed by Rosamond Pike. Helen is hilariously thick but never too hilariously thick; she never detracts from the main issue at hand: innocence betrayed. David has a big secret. What is he hiding? It’s the question which, I’m assuming, propelled Lynn into the career she finally chose. What are people hiding, generally?
This is a nostalgically elegant, comically restrained, cleverly scripted film which, in parts, is also extremely moving. When, in one of the final scenes, Jenny has to appeal for help from her English teacher, Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams), I was moved, as would the cows have been, but they couldn’t attend the screening due to extra, extra Latin. (They are very weak when it comes to Latin, and I fear it may be their undoing.) My only niggle, perhaps, is that the role of Jenny’s mother seems rather underwritten. All she seems to do is strike a look somewhere between pride and panic while doing a lot of washing up. But that is only a niggle, and An Education is an absolute gem. Am I the first to say that? Probably not, but at least you now know it is true.