I had never heard of Carey Mulligan before seeing "An Education." But I'm quite sure many people will know her name after her breakthrough performance in this film, one of the finest onscreen portrayals of 2009.
Mulligan has been in a few things, most notably one of the younger sisters in 2005's "Pride & Prejudice." But in her role as Jenny, a British teen girl who finds herself unexpectedly romanced by an older man, Mulligan blooms like a flower opening its petals to newfound light.
It's like watching Julia Roberts in "Pretty Woman," or Angelina Jolie in "Girl, Interrupted" -- you know you're witnessing the arrival of a major new acting talent.
I'm not quite over the moon about the movie as a whole, however.
It's based on the autobiographical novel by Lynn Barber, adapted for the screen by Nick Hornby and directed by Danish director Lone Sherfig. It's the sort of movie that's enjoyable for the excellent execution by the cast and filmmakers, and not because of the freshness of an innovative story.
As much as I was thrilled by Mulligan's performance, the film suffers for the predictability of its conclusion. Think of it as a well-worn path, expertly navigated.
It's 1961, and Jenny is a hard-working, smart girl of working-class origins whose entire life is ordered around getting into Oxford to study English. Her parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) follow her grades and extracurricular activities as if they have no other interests in life.
One rainy day she bumps into David (Peter Sarsgaard), a suave man about 20 years older who drives a sleek sports car and gives her a ride. He's intrigued by the witty girl so eager to discover the world -- especially France -- and arranges to bump into her again. Soon they're dating.
It's really interesting how David slyly ingratiates himself with Jenny's parents. If you just presented them with the idea of their beloved girl dating a man twice her years (and a Jew to boot), they would probably react with horror. But because David presents himself as smart, well-connected, affluent -- in other words, the epitome of their aspirations for Jenny -- they practically glom onto him.
The teachers (notably Olivia Williams) and headmistress (Emma Thompson) at Jenny's school assail her with warnings about throwing away her future, but she's enraptured by the opportunity to travel, wear fancy dresses and hobnob with David's chic friends (Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike).
There's a great scene where Jenny demands her instructors tell why she must spend the next few years doing something "hard and boring," if her only reward is a job like theirs that continues the drudgery. It's a rebel yell in lilting British tones, an outcry against Jenny's own situation and the societal limitations placed on mid-century women with brains and gumption.
Inevitably, Jenny's fling with David replaces her textbooks as her crucible of learning. She gets a hint of dark tidings when he and his pal steal a painting, revealing themselves as rogues who appreciate art for its monetary rather than spiritual value.
And without overtly giving away the ending ... well, think of the most obvious outcome possible, and you've got it.
Still, "An Education" is a worthwhile film because it will be remembered as Carey Mulligan's coming-out party. Audiences, like teachers, always revel when a star pupil announces herself.
Read Nick Rogers' review of "An Education" here.