Do you see her face when she’s gone, sometimes so bright your heart just stops

It is not a love story. Well, in a way it is, and it certainly has all of the trappings of one. An Education follows a schoolgirl named Jenny in nineteen-sixties London who encounters a charming older man, and begins spending time with him, drawn into the nightlife bustle of high-class cultural events and smoky, raucous jazz clubs. It’s a lifestyle as far removed from her own as is conceivable, moving from cloistered, serious-minded study devoted to forging a path towards Oxford to the impetuous freedom of a hedonistic embrace of every enticement that can be reached by walking through a door or popping a cork.

There is a romance afoot, to be sure, but it’s questionable as to whether the impressionable young woman is in love with the man, or with the slice of the world that he represents and offers entry to. When she realizes that her seventeenth birthday is fast approaching, meaning that her plan to lose her virginity on that date is also about to come to fruition (itself a telling detail, indication that she may be more comfortable with her regimented life that she is willing to admit), the more striking revelation for her is that her partner for the deflowering is almost certainly determined. She doesn’t react to this with ardor or shock, simply curiosity. As the story builds to expected, even inevitable peaks of emotional tumult, Jenny remains somewhat detached from the man she’s been orbiting with. I never believed that she was in love with him, but I definitely believed that she was in love with being with him. It’s a fascinating wrinkle that puts the film on a slightly different track.

That fascination is enhanced by the marvelous lead performance by Carey Mulligan, who is blessed with one of those faces that can convey a myriad of conflicting emotions with a twist of her mouth and a wrinkling of her eyes. There’s a strong sense that every feeling that her character is experiencing is showing up right there for everyone to see, an openness that makes her journey that much more resonant. There are splendid supporting performances by Peter Sarsgaard and Alfred Molina (as, respectively, her lover and her father), but the movie belongs to Mulligan. It’s a star-making turn, or at least would be in an era in which charm and intelligence carried as much weight with audiences as manipulation and bombast.

The directing by Lone Sherfig and and the screenplay by Nick Hornby (based upon a memoir by British journalist Lynn Barber) emphasizes those finer qualities–charm and intelligence–by astutely taking a tack based on unobtrusiveness. There’s a blessed lack of fussiness to their work, an absence of ego that allows to story to stand brightly on its own. It also allows the story to be something different than what it first appears to be, allows the story, interestingly enough, to take on its own unique identity. In confounding those expectations, they demonstrate that there are many ways to build surprises into a film.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)