By CHRIS TOOKEY
UPDATED: 09:28 GMT, 30 October 2009
Here’s a hit movie that’s small in scale, but big in heart – the most charming British film of the year.
It has a female protagonist who’s flawed, pretentious and frequently misguided, but grows into a character as memorable as Holly Golightly in Breakfast At Tiffany’s.
Best of all, it introduces a sensational British actress who combines the gamine innocence of Audrey Hepburn with the warmth, intelligence and mischief of the young Judi Dench.
It isn’t only me whom she has impressed. Thanks to rave reviews from virtually every American critic, she is now the front-runner to win Best Actress at next year’s Oscars.
The chances are that you haven’t heard of Carey Mulligan, even though she had a small role in the Keira Knightley Pride And Prejudice, and a bigger one in the BBC’s serialisation of Bleak House, but she’s going to be gracing the big screen for decades to come.
The camera loves her, and her face has a miraculous transparency of emotion. A star is born – and, more importantly, a wonderful actress.
Based on a memoir by journalist Lynn Barber, this is the potentially sleazy but ultimately uplifting story of a 16-year-old schoolgirl who – bored with her staid, suburban parents’ ambitions for her to study hard and get into Oxford – allows herself to be seduced by a man more than twice her age.
Played by Peter Sarsgaard, David is a sophisticated smoothie with just a hint of Jewish exoticism, who offers an alluring world of classical concerts, art auctions and cabarets.
He’s glib enough to persuade her domineering but socially insecure father (Alfred Molina) and easily flattered mother (Cara Seymour) that he wants the best for their daughter.
He offers to introduce her to his old tutor, C.S.Lewis, who might be able to help her get into Oxford. Even early on, we suspect that David is too good to be true.
But he’s good-looking, generous and offers Jenny more fun and excitement than her hesitant teenage boyfriend Graham (Matthew Beard, the promising young actor from And When Did You Last See Your Father?).
David and his chums (Dominic Cooper, amusingly shifty, and Rosamund Pike, hilariously vacuous, like a less fearsomely intellectual Holly Willoughby) show her an entertaining mixture of high life and low pleasures, such as a visit to the dog track and an introduction to property racketeer Peter Rachman.
Though Carey Mulligan is bound to attract most of the critical plaudits, Sarsgaard is terrific in the role of tempter. His smile is engaging, but reserved.
His eyes are friendly, but watchful. His easy self-assurance is just a little bit too manufactured, but what is it concealing. Shyness? Weakness? A guilty secret?
But he knows how to give a girl a good time – driving her around in his maroon sports car, buying her presents, taking her to Oxford and Paris . . . who could resist?
Certainly not Jenny, who disappoints her English teacher (Olivia Williams, delightfully prim and buttoned-up) and enrages her headmistress (Emma Thompson, who makes a splendidly blue-stocking, anti- semitic gorgon).
David seems like a short-cut to a life that Jenny previously had thought she could achieve only through higher education and a successful career.
Nick Hornby’s screenplay contains a handful of speech anachronisms and a couple of moments when the dialogue teeters on the edge of soap opera and caricature, but is a likely Oscar nominee for its quiet wit, and the way it offers every member of a superb cast their moment.
Sally Hawkins, so delightful in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, has a late, moving cameo that confirms her as an actress of rare versatility; and Pike shows talents as a comic actress that have never been obvious before.
It’s a tribute to the writing that virtually every subsidiary character has so much vibrancy and texture that it’s easy to imagine an entire film being constructed around each of their lives.
Hornby’s books have all had humour and humanity, and he fleshes out Barber’s short memoir with a real feeling for Sixties glamour, adolescent longings and adult insecurities. From High Fidelity onwards, he’s been skilled at noting how people let their cultural tastes define them, both as they are and as they would like to be.
Jenny sees herself as a French, bohemian sophisticate in the Juliette Gréco mould, which makes her all the more delightful as she fails to be as worldly as she thinks she is.
The title, An Education, is deliberately ambiguous, referring both to academic training and the process by which life leads us towards maturity.
Although Carey Mulligan was 22 when she played the role, she doesn’t condescend to her 16-year- old character. It’s easy to empathise as she makes choices that don’t exactly go the way she planned.
Female director Lone Scherfig (who made the promising Italian For Beginners) handles the sexual side of the relationship with delicacy, never allowing it to become exploitative.
The story could easily have been treated more sensationally, over-seriously or melodramatically, but even as comedy it remains a moral, cautionary tale.
Hornby has softened Barber’s memoir to make us see David through Jenny’s eyes and understand how she makes some foolish choices. But he remains true to its bittersweet essence.
It depicts life as a cruel kind of farce, in which everyone makes mistakes, but most people somehow pick themselves up and make the best of a bad job.
Its stiff-upper-lip bravery, and refusal to wallow in self-pity or see its leading character as a victim, is peculiarly British – and refreshingly rare in modern cinema.
Some will dismiss this as a film about not very much. The only thing at stake is a silly, middle-class girl’s place at university, so why should we care?
The extraordinary thing is that we do. And though the film may appear small and slight, it takes on a deeper resonance because of its impeccably observed sense of period.
Jenny is not just a silly girl. She represents Britain emerging from the austerity of the post-war era and experiencing the dangerous allure of entrepreneurial capitalism and the Swinging Sixties. Her story is our story.