An Education (2009)

Drama Rated PG-13

An unusually nuanced and mature depiction of one of those hoary movie fantasies: the older man who gets the much, much younger woman. Could the story’s emotional intelligence have anything to do with the fact that it’s told from the female perspective?

In this case the younger woman is actually a girl named Jenny (Carey Mulligan). A teen in 1960s suburban London living with repressive parents, Jenny’s love of fine art, classical music and French films puts her on a different plane than nearly everyone else in her life. Enter David (Peter Sarsgaard), a significantly older, seemingly benign man of money and culture. Could he be her way out of bourgeoisie boredom, or will he be her ruination?

An Education, as its title implies, gives ample credence to both possibilities. We understand Jenny’s impulses and decisions, even as we recognize that they are ultimately self-destructive. A breakout performance by Mulligan puts us right in Jenny’s head – if you’ve ever been bewildered by smart girls who make bad decisions, watch this.

Sarsgaard received less acclaim than Mulligan (who nabbed a Best Actress Oscar nomination), but he is equally crucial to the movie’s success. David isn’t the obvious lech of male fantasies such as American Beauty or Venus, but someone more intricately warped. David really believes that he and Jenny are involved in a legitimate romance – it’s exactly that sort of “sincerity” that makes her fall for him.

An Education, which was adapted by Nick Hornby from a memoir by Lynn Barber, still leaves you queasy, but for once that is to the genre’s credit. The desirable young woman this time around isn’t simply an object to be attained, but a fully realized character to be understood.

Did I also mention this was directed by Lone Scherfig, a woman?