An Education, London Film Festival

London swings back into shot
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The Independent Culture

An Education arrives at the London Film Festival almost a year after its Sundance premiere. Given that this is a London-set film showcasing the best of British talent (Lynn Barber, whose childhood memoirs inspired it, screenwriter Nick Hornby, rising young star Carey Mulligan, Emma Thompson, Alfred Molina and others), it's perverse that UK audiences have had to wait so long to see it.

This is a small film but an acutely well-observed and well-acted one that benefits from Mulligan's performance, sly and affecting by turns, as the teenager growing up in early 1960s London suburbia and having an affair with a much older man. The Sixties revolution hasn't quite happened. We're in that little window of time between "the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles' first LP" (to quote poet Philip Larkin). Social and generational change are in the air but, on the outside at least, this is still a repressive era. Middle-class England is full of couples like Jack and Marjorie (Molina and Cara Seymour): fretful, conservative types trying to keep up appearances.

Jenny (Mulligan) is the free-spirited daughter being groomed by Jack and Marjorie for the Oxbridge education they hope will lift her (and them) up the social scale. If Jenny passes her exams and gets into a good university, she stands a better chance of finding the right kind of husband. The plans for Jenny are thrown askew when she is picked up at a bus stop by the debonair David (Peter Sarsgaard), a roué and property developer who loves jazz, art and fine dining. At first, she is utterly enraptured by him. So are her parents. The fact that he may well be having sex with their 16-year-old daughter doesn't bother them at all when he is so wealthy and so well-spoken.

An Education is directed in engagingly idiosyncratic fashion by the Danish film-maker, Lone Scherfig. She brings an outsider's eye to material that would almost certainly have been tackled in far more earnest fashion by a British director. The film touches on some grim aspects of the Britain it depicts: the hidden racism, the ruthlessness of slum landlords, the hypocrisy of the middle classes. There is something queasy about the central relationship, too: this is a story about a middle-aged man preying on a virginal teenage girl. However, Jenny's anarchic spirit is matched by that of the director, who manages to strike a playful and sometimes whimsical note without trivialising the issues.

Jenny may like to think she is a sophisticated, Juliette Gréco-loving young woman about town, but she is really just a schoolgirl who has to wait at bus stops in the rain. Mulligan captures both her precocity and her naiveté.

We're in an England where there is a lot of penny-pinching going on. As the film makes clear again and again, there is a huge gulf between what the characters here aspire to and what they can actually afford.

Opens nationwide on 30 October