The story of “An Education” can easily be traced through Carey Mulligan’s wardrobe.
At the Michigan and Showcase
At the beginning, she plays precocious 16-year-old Jenny, waiting on the curb after a school orchestra rehearsal, her schoolgirl’s uniform sopping wet from the rain. An exciting, older man (Peter Sarsgaard, “Garden State”) pulls up and offers her a ride, taking her through a whirlwind romance of glamorous concerts, art auctions and dazzling seaside vacations. Off comes the uniform, up goes the hair and on goes the demure yet sexy black shift.
She sensually embraces her older lover in a knee-length lilac dress dotted with flowers and bows. They’re in Paris; it’s the city of love, and they’re kind of in love. That night, she swirls around in a floating white chiffon masterpiece with a streak of red across the shoulders.
Later that night, once she has laid her soul — and breasts — bare, she has no clothes at all. With her virginity successfully lost, she has become a woman — or so she thinks — donning a dignified brocade sheath stitched with gold piping.
Finally, the film reaches its climax. It turns out she’s not really a woman; she’s a girl. “I feel old, but not very wise,” she intonates, her hands folded across her schoolgirl’s skirt, once again back to the beginning of the story.
It’s details like these that make “An Education” much more than the typical coming-of-age blah. If there’s anything brilliant about director Lone Scherfig (“Italian for Beginners”), it’s that he knows how to contrast visual elements, whether clothes or scenes, cutting decisively between jazzy, electrifying dance sequences or clipped kitchen table conversations. Yet the crown jewel of this film is not its cinematography, set decoration or even costume design — it’s Carey Mulligan herself. Incandescent and effervescent, Mulligan’s portrayal and fascinating transformation from innocent ingénue to wise woman possesses the nuances of an actor twice her age.
Ever since the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last January, Mulligan’s performance has been on the radar for Oscar love. Yet this isn’t a conventional Oscar-baiting role. Mulligan pulls out a subtle, organic performance with little drama. Yet there’s a genuineness to the way she speaks and the way she moves — a genuineness that extends past the fourth wall of cinema down into the hearts of audiences. It’s a performance you’ll be able to feel through all the pores in your body. Forget golden statues; this is a role that will be remembered for years to come — it’s that eerily and spookily mesmerizing.
Previously only known for her role as Kitty Bennet in “Pride and Prejudice,” Mulligan takes the audience straight into the film, giving the viewers a chance to experience the world through the rose-tinted lenses of her young character Jenny. In one scene alone, her eyes can tell histories of emotions: ambition, desire, wonder, discomfort, excitement, hesitance. In less than two hours she evolves from giggling schoolgirl to woman of the world and then back again, and the transformation never feels forced. Jenny slowly grows more confident, more beautiful, more worldly and eventually more cynical. It’s a remarkably textured performance.
Still, “An Education” never falls into the traps of this type of film. Set in the time of England’s sexual reawakening, the young Jenny represents the burgeoning of women’s liberation and the inception of the British New Wave. The country was growing up. Even as a young schoolgirl, Jenny is no blushing daisy. “All that poetry about something that lasts no time at all,” she quips about sex. As a girl that exudes sexual self-confidence, Jenny makes her relationship with her 40-year-old lover play out less creepily than it would otherwise. She’s young, but she’s no victim — a refreshing take on a young British girl’s supposed “innocence.”
Although it might seem excessive to solely praise Mulligan’s performance in an otherwise intoxicating film, “An Education” embraces her from the inside out. From the solid supporting roles by seasoned British actors Alfred Molina (“Spider-Man 2”), Dominic Cooper (“The Duchess”), Emma Thompson (“Love Actually”) and Rosamund Pike (“Pride and Prejudice”) to the dizzying cinematography to the exquisite costumes, all peripheral aspects merely act to ornament the star of Carey Mulligan.
Toward the film’s end, Jenny giddily rides a bike while donning a flowered jumper — a sort of intermediate between little girl and young adult. She has bloomed before our eyes. And so has Carey Mulligan.