It’s Brit ’60s Retro Month at the movies. Batting startup was “The Damned United,” about the tumultuous career and British soccer (football) coach Brian Clough (technically this also extends into the 1970s); then newly arrived and covered here is Lone Scherfig’s wonderfully wry pre-Beatles examination at a young 16-year-old girl’s desire in 1961 London for adventure beyond her schoolhouse walls; and ending with the upcoming “Pirate Radio,” Richard Curtis’ comedic look at the DJs anchored offshore in the North Sea in mid-decade, broadcasting to a nation of puritanical adult prudes (including a few with misguided authority) intent on banning rock ‘n’ roll.
Today’s class project is “An Education,” wherein a highly sophisticated (she speaks French, she knows art), intelligent, and pretty student becomes entrenched in an oddly enervating and seemingly mature yet morally improper relationship with a suave, worldly older man. She’s bored in her austere girls’ school (the Cold War brown and gray tones flawlessly hint her drab, routine environment), but her straight A+ marks and expectations to attend Oxford earn working class smiles from her not-that-smart and fairly gullible parents. Actress Carey Mulligan’s captivating accomplishment as Jenny is rightfully turning heads, hitting all the proper marks laid out by Scherfig and the screenwriter/novelist Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, Fever Pitch, About a Boy), adapting an 8-page magazine essay by journalist Lynn Barber. Mulligan easily sheds 8 of her 24 years (well, 22 when the film was made) in a gem of a performance as a curious, daring, and, at times, luminous adolescent. She’s slyly mocking her teacher one moment, daring to contest the merits of a girl’s education the next. She’s alluring yet determined, and grows a lovely smile when she’s happy. She’s a grown-up well beyond her teenage years, yet still a child (and a virgin) when love/seduction apparently beckons in the guise of a roguish David (Peter Sarsgaard), a man twice her age. In his finely etched role, the Illinois-born actor replaces his American Midwest origins with a cosmopolitan London dialect and a suit wardrobe that would have made him an easy contender for the James Bond role in 1962’s “Dr. No.” It’s a delight to watch them on screen together.
Others in the cast shine. Albert Molina and Cara Seymour as Jenny’s conservative parents, who are easily won over by the smooth talk and straight-out lies of the charming new man in their daughter’s life, allowing her to travel with him to Oxford and Paris, presumably chaperoned by the lad’s “Aunt Helen.” Helen, we know, is no relative at all, but a beautiful blond and vacuous friend whose under-educated character, crushingly trying to impress, tells Jenny she really doesn’t need to study Latin in school, as even Latin people won’t be speaking the language in 50 years. Helen’s boyfriend is the smarmy looking Danny (Dominic Cooper), also David’s business partner. They know secrets but won’t tell. Emma Thompson makes a small yet important appearance as the school’s headmistress, with Olivia Williams (“Rushmore”), decked out in total stiffness and prudery, putting in quality time as the teacher bearing the brunt of Jenny’s disgust with the state of the British education system.
Technical elements are among the best this year. Photography, editing, music, production design, and costumes all add seamless period flavor to the puritanical stew that was London almost a half-century ago.
Yes, there is something subtlety, just-under-the-surface wrong in Jenny’s new-found London of jazz clubs, concerts, and art auctions. There’s a subtle deviousness that is peeled back as the film ticks forward, waiting for a roadster emotional bomb to explode and for one person’s life to face scandal and ruin. “An Education” is a cleverly concocted tale that has wowed audiences at Sundance (winning audience and cinematography awards). (Mulligan’s other entry there, “The Greatest,” in which she stars opposite Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon, still hasn’t been released.) That, too, was directed by a woman. Scherfig (“Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself”), the Danish-born helmer of “An Education,” has distinctly recreated an era when girls were still being bred to marry and raise children. It’s a mesmerizing dish.