This is the awfully complicated dilemma that protagonist Jenny Miller (Carey Mulligan) faces in An Education. In suburban London in 1961, old soul Jenny is a shoo-in at Oxford if she keeps up her studies at their current clip. But who should arrive to distract her but the older University of Life graduate David Goldman (Peter Sarsgaard). He minored in being a totally amoral.
And although David's revelry and riches charm both Jenny and her parents, Jenny does see hints of the darker side of his facade, but still ends up making choices that should frustrate 21st century women who have any inkling of what financial and educational independence can mean for women.
Critics have been abuzz about An Education since its debut at Sundance last year, especially regarding the work of two women: director Lone Sherfig and star Mulligan, and rightly so. The look and feel of the film is magnetically retro, and the camera work gracefully augments Jenny's whirlwind emotions, swept off her feet in a beautiful Paris montage one minute and wallowing in a dark, crushing reality the next.
Mulligan's work has garnered overwhelming praise, culminating in her Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Mulligan is undeniably charming, vulnerable and tenacious, a solid lead in a solid role. Her co-star Rosamund Pike, though, deserves equal praise for her role as a spacy but well-meaning friend of David's, a perfectly played foil for witty Jenny. A supporting cast including Emma Thompson, Olivia Williams and Alfred Molina round out the film with solid and earnest performances as people who want what's best for Jenny, although they disagree on what is best.
The only dud in the cast is Sarsgaard, who inexplicably manages to be stunningly handsome and also thoroughly revolting. Something about his con-man smile is so unnerving, but in that way he's terrifically well cast as Jenny's older beau. The problem? His laughable English accent alternates between distracting and ridiculous. It seriously begs the question: If Sarsgaard was completely irreplaceable in this part, why not just write him in as an American and save audiences the grief of a truly Natalie Portman-level bad accent.
Although the film as a whole was a little underwhelming, given all the hype, and although the plot will seem mighty familiar to anyone who has seen Up in the Air (substitute a young girl coming of age for a middle-aged man in a mid-life crisis), it's a very sharp-looking, mostly wonderfully performed film. And from a feminist standpoint, it's very satisfying. A talented young woman redeems herself with the help of another talented, educated woman. What's not to appreciate about that? Sure, it's frustrating that Jenny makes some fleeting decisions earlier on, but we 21st century ladybrains must realize that 2010 and 1961 are worlds away, and thank goodness for that.
Feminist grade: A
It passes the Bechdel test with flying colors, features several strong women characters and a female protagonist, was directed by a woman and is based on a memoir by Lynn Barber.
Moviegoer grade: B-
A solid film that might not live up to the hype.