Not unlike some classic Hollywood "women's movies," AN EDUCATION is a cautionary tale told by a young woman who makes some "wrong" choices. Based on a memoir by Lynn Barber with a screenplay by Nick Hornby, this film would almost seem slight, if it wasn't for the amazing performance by Carey Mulligan.
She's one of those rare radiant actors who can pull focus in almost any scene without it seeming intentional or self-indulgent. If she hasn't been compared to the young Audrey Hepburn for her performance in this flick, I'd be surprised. There's even a FUNNY FACE kind of fashion makeover that takes place in AN EDUCATION in which her character seems to be channeling Hepburn.
I can see why she's been nominated for so many awards, including a "Best Actress" Oscar. The movie supports her in some ways—the story is compelling, the other actors terrific (including some champions like Emma Thompson in a small and unforgiving role and Alfred Molina in a large but equally unforgiving role and one I could argue he was miscast for, but he's so good and fun to watch in the end it doesn't matter).
The direction is good, though there are moments, like with Molina as Mulligan's character's father, where some things seem a little too contrived or too clearly delineated. But the story is so finely tuned and rigorously blunt that it makes up for any directorial missteps, which could be laid to the fact that the director, Lone Schefrig is Danish, I believe, and this seems to be her first feature in English. (As far as I can find out.)
But in the end the memorable thing about this movie is Carey Mulligan, an actress in her early twenties, who plays this too-smart-perhaps-for-her-own-good ambitious teenager perfectly. It's like Ellen Page in JUNO, only AN EDUCATION is less Pollyannish, if also less charming. But not Mulligan, her charm shines through this role like an old fashioned Hollywood movie star, ala Myrna Loy or Greer Garson. Maybe she's too young and it's too soon to make those comparisons, but I'm betting she'll fulfill them given some decent movies and challenging roles, like the one she plays in AN EDUCATION.