★ ★ ★ ☆
An Education is a coming of age tale about a teenage girl in 1960s suburban London who's affair with an older man forever changes her life. The description makes it sound like yet another lame British dramedy starring Hugh Grant. Fortunately, that is not the case. An Education is a prescient reflection on the very nature of education. Jenny Mellor, a bright 16 year old girl, has a chance encounter with a man twice her age that leads to an unlikely romance. David is a mysterious figure. All we really know about him is that the only education he has received is from "the school of life." As a student who's life revolves around studying to attend Oxford, Jenny is drawn to David's worldliness. David introduces Jenny to art, foreign films, and fine cuisine. Meanwhile, her hapless parents are so charmed by David, that they even allow David to escort Jenny to Paris. While this seems implausible, the account is based on the real life experience of journalist Lynn Barber. After watching the film, I highly recommend reading Barber's own account of the events.
Despite the description, the film is not a conventional love story. It is not even clear that Jenny actually cares for Simon. Rather, as Roger Ebert pointed out, it is a love story between Jenny and the possibilities within herself. Ultimately, she gets from Simon what she really wanted: an education. In her travels with Simon, the provincial Jenny learned more about the world than she could ever have learned from Oxford alone.
Many critics, including Roger Ebert, have compared Carey Mulligan to Audrey Hepburn. This comparison is unfair to Mulligan, as no one could possibly live up to that reputation. Though it's unlikely that she'll be the next Audrey Hepburn, she certainly has a bright future in the industry. On the other end of the spectrum, Peter Sarsgaard's portrayal of David was a breakthrough role for an actor who had yet to get a shot at a significant role. He did not disappoint.
An Education is no mere period piece. Director Lone Sherfig did an admirable job of bringing 1960s London to life. Despite the fact that Western society has changed significantly since the 60s, the lessons of the film are as relevant as ever. Life experiences are equally as important as what we learn in classrooms. We live in an era where human beings have unprecedented access to artistic and cultural experiences, yet these are viewed as mere entertainment. Meanwhile, higher education is seen as a virtual prerequisite for adulthood. The real lesson of the film is that young people need to strike a balance between formal universities, and the university of life. That is our education.