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Peter Sarsgaard is the older man, who he plays with the seductive blandness the role calls for. It's not Sarsgaard's character, David, who tempts Jenny; it's the idea of him. Before David shows up, Jenny has a path set forth by her parents and her English teacher: Oxford.
When David enters the picture by chance, Jenny suddenly has a choice: Oxford or the glamorous life David exposes her to that doesn't require a college degree. She declares her first date with David as the best night of her life. It's easy to see why: fabulous dinners and concerts in London with David's friends, played by Rosamund Pike and Dominic Cooper. Pike is really too worldly looking to be playing such a dim bulb, but she's luminous as a representation of Jenny's possible future.
Jenny soon learns that David’s seemingly easy life may not be what she truly wants, and she finds herself at a crossroads. The movie does an excellent job at making you live the conflict too — it's not obvious what life Jenny will choose, even though a traditional Hollywood movie would make it clear what the "right" thing to do is. Instead, you find yourself in Jenny's shoes thanks to the engrossing performance of Mulligan, whose angelic face and throaty voice shift easily from dedicated student to London sophisticate.
Mulligan's likability is matched only by her Oxford-pushing father, played by Alfred Molina. Some of the most entertaining scenes are those in which Molina is either brusquely insulting one of Jenny's suitors or being entranced by David himself. At first I wondered why Jenny's parents would let her go off so easily with David when I watched the trailer, but it plays out plainly: David is irresistible. Like a snake-oil salesman, that is. He feeds Jenny and her parents what they want to hear, and when things go awry, Jenny angrily confronts her father about how he could have been so seduced by David. This is one of the lessons Jenny learns from her affair with David; that despite education, maturity, and age, authority figures are fallible.
The other authority figures of this movie are compelling as well: Olivia Williams plays Jenny's encouraging teacher (whose radiance can't be hidden by a pair of horn-rimmed glasses) and Emma Thompson has a cameo as a rigid headmistress who seems to take pleasure in threatening Jenny about her future.
However, no one shines brighter than Mulligan. Her Jenny is a strong, bright young woman who never completely loses her way, despite the situation she gets caught up in. It's her performance in An Education you'll be talking about when you leave the theater — and maybe in a few months when awards season begins.
Photos courtesy of Sony Pictures