'An Education,' Courtesy Of A Stellar Performance

W: Carey Mulligan, at school, in 'An Education'

Life studies: A 16-year-old schoolgirl (Carey Mulligan, center) learns hard lessons — but also discovers a thing or two about the value of experience — as she navigates an affair with an older man. Kerry Brown/Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

itoggle caption Kerry Brown/Sony Pictures Classics

An Education

  • Director: Lone Scherfig
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 95 minutes

Rated PG-13: Adult situations, including an intergenerational affair

With: Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Emma Thompson

(Recommended)

The notion of the single performance that creates a star overnight is surely one of Hollywood's biggest cliches, but in An Education it's a cliche you can take directly to the bank.

The film is an exceptional look at a young girl's journey from innocence to experience, and actress Carey Mulligan is the film's irreplaceable centerpiece.

It's London in 1961, and 16-year-old Jenny gets caught in a rainstorm that launches her into a relationship with David, a man 20 years her senior. He pulls up in a car as she walks down the street lugging her cello.

"Look," he says, "if you had any sense you wouldn't take a lift from a strange man, but I'm a music lover, and I'm worried about your cello — so what I propose is you put it in my car and walk alongside me."

Resistance is futile. David has an almost uncanny knack for saying the right thing at the right time; he knows instinctively that what teenage Jenny wants, most of all, is to be treated like the adult she so would like to be.

This plays less troublingly than it sounds, because Jenny is a bright, intelligent young person exactly — but exactly — on the cusp of adult life.

Her pure, joyful excitement at being at a supper club with David and his friends, at the possibilities of what she sees before her, make it impossible not to be on her side.

An Education also understands that we have to see all this through Jenny's eyes, have to understand how genuinely alluring David is.

Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard in 'An Education' i i

Paris, je t'aime: David (Peter Sarsgaard, right) has just the sort of savoir-faire to charm Mulligan's quick-witted Jenny, who's eager to leave the suburbs behind for more cosmopolitan pleasures. Kerry Brown/Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

itoggle caption Kerry Brown/Sony Pictures Classics
Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard in 'An Education'

Paris, je t'aime: David (Peter Sarsgaard, right) has just the sort of savoir-faire to charm Mulligan's quick-witted Jenny, who's eager to leave the suburbs behind for more cosmopolitan pleasures.

Kerry Brown/Sony Pictures Classics

Actor Peter Sarsgaard's enormous charm and genuine affability reminds us that seducers in real life are not as obvious as they often are on film; they succeed because they project a sincerity that at least initially does not seem to be open to question.

It's Mulligan's ability to completely inhabit her role, though, that's truly the key to An Education's success. She's gifted with the ability to make us believe in Jenny as an innocent, Jenny as a person of experience and all the Jennys in between.

This is one of the performances of the year, good enough to make us believe that once in a blue moon, even Hollywood cliches can come true.

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