‘An Education’ both silly and sad

England in the early 1960s was a time of new freedoms and exciting possibilities. It’s an intoxicating environment for young Jenny to enter womanhood.

A bright, vivacious 16-year-old aiming for Oxford, she is her family’s only child and shining star. She’s also mature for her years and eager to begin the journey into adult life.

When stylish, knowing David drives up in a maroon sports car and charms her off her feet, the 30-ish sophisticate seems like the ideal man to offer extracurricular tutoring. His life is a whirl of art auctions, orchestra concerts, thrilling bars and exciting, mysterious adult friends.

Jenny’s parents are hypnotized by David’s elegant manners and surprisingly willing to let him date her; if this well-heeled real estate broker snaps her up, they reason, that’s the Oxford tuition saved.

Exceptionally bright but inexperienced, Jenny will have to decide for herself whether this suave older man is right for her.

In “An Education,” novelist Nick Hornby delivers sharp material in a script adapted from a memoir by British journalist Lynn Barber.

As David, Peter Sarsgaard is cool and tempting in his natty suits, a confident gent with an alluring whiff of pagan decadence and sleaze. He makes asking for a tea biscuit seem to become sexualized.

Carey Mulligan, as Jenny, has the sunflower freshness of a child, yet she offers a mature, layered performance; she becomes a star before our eyes.

Alfred Molina impresses as Jenny’s father, who can bend his principles if it means landing a good deal for his family.

Emma Thompson plays the toughest Brit since Winston Churchill as the head of Jenny’s school, who sees only disaster ahead.

The story doesn’t reveal its hand too early. Director Lone Scherfig keeps us guessing about David; he could be Jenny’s beloved or her downfall.

How can a film so light and playful, off-the-cuff and silly, be so achingly sad?

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