Of all literary genres, memoir is surely the most resistant to cinematic treatment: the point of view of a memoir is, however hard the memoirist struggles for objectivity, on the inside looking out.
Films are, just as inevitably, on the outside looking in. Lynn Barber's An Education, originally a short piece in an issue of Granta, was a marvellous account of an episode in her life – her relationship, as a precociously clever 16-year-old, with an older man, who managed to seduce both her and, less literally, her parents. But it was also an evocation of a particular moment, the early Sixties, when one way of looking at the world, a kind of wilful innocence, had begun to seem outmoded and insufficient but nothing had been found to replace it. And it is not a surprise, and only the mildest disappointment, that Lone Scherfig's film is more period-piece than character study.
The film begins by laying out the boundaries of the world inhabited by Jenny (Carey Mulligan), the fictionalised version of Barber: she's a clever girl in a dull suburban setting, apparently destined for Oxford by her parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour), desperate for her to "get on". Jenny is unworldly but hungry for sophistication – given to dropping French phrases into conversation and listening to Juliette Greco records in her bedroom. Stranded in the rain on the way home from orchestra practice – she has to play in the orchestra, her parents insist, it will show the authorities at Oxford she's a "joiner-inner" – she is picked up by David (Peter Sarsgaard), an older man driving an expensive car. David is polite and attractive, he makes amusing and informed remarks about classical music, and he treats her as an equal, offering her a cigarette, soliciting her opinions. A few days later they bump into one another on the street: he invites her to a classical concert, then charms her innately suspicious parents into letting her go – though his version of charm should already be ringing alarm bells: "Jenny didn't tell me she had a sister... You're a lucky man."
Soon, outings with David and his friends, Danny and Helen (Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike), are a regular thing: concerts, art auctions, restaurants, nightclubs, an evening at the dog-track, even – her parents' anxieties lubricated by David's jokes and ready lies – weekends away. David's evident infatuation, Danny's intelligent attention, even Helen's vacuous lady-chat (a lovely and unexpected comic turn by Pike) flatter Jenny. But odd things happen along the way: on a weekend in the country, David and Danny pop into a house, then leave in a tearing hurry with something bulky under their arms. It seems the "art dealing" they do together isn't altogether legitimate; nor is David's "property developing", as Jenny should clock when, at the track, he and Danny meet a man called Peter Rachman. Then there is the romantic side of things: David is always respectful, never hurries her along. But he insists on tacky pet names and baby talk, and the night Jenny finally prepares to surrender her virginity, he proposes getting the "messy bit" over using a banana. When they do at last make love, she unwittingly pulls the rug out: "All that poetry, all those songs, for something that takes no time at all."
Nick Hornby's screenplay lays out the progress of their relationship, up to the point where David proposes marriage, with great economy and wit. You see clearly how much Jenny needs the life David shows her, how little she needs him, and you see how, in her hunger for the life, she manages to look away from the pervasive shabbiness underpinning it. The script is matched by Scherfig's very cool, understated direction, and some fine performances. Mulligan manages to seem both childlike and middle-aged, and always appealingly curious. Molina, incapable of seeming boringly suburban, nevertheless conveys the frustrated intelligence that has found its flowering in his daughter. Olivia Williams is excellent as the teacher who needs Jenny's success more than Jenny does.
As always, though, the camera is distracted by pretty, shiny things: the colours at the dog-track, the bridges of Paris, the cars and the suits and the frocks. This doesn't matter too much when these things are distracting Jenny, too; but when at last she sees what's really happening, realises how badly she and her parents have messed up, the camera is at a loss. A line about the importance of art showing, not telling, precedes a whole lot of telling – of people explaining precisely what they feel, and why. The glamour stripped away, the film seems abruptly empty, Jenny herself a cypher. We need at this point to be on the inside, looking out. If Hornby and Scherfig knew how to do that, this would be a great film; as it is, we'll have to settle for pretty good.