Hot on the heels of his new novel Juliet, Naked is Nick Hornby’s screenplay for An Education. Though the writer’s name is a selling point for the film (a rare honor for a lowly scribe) don’t expect the pop- and sports-obsessed musings of the movies based on his books About a Boy, Fever Pitch, and High Fidelity. Based on a memoir by Lynn Barber, this one’s about a girl. And what interesting company 16-year-old Jenny (Carey Mulligan) proves to be.

An Education takes place in 1961, just before London started to swing. From the start, the movie is excellent at signifiers: The period production design (Andrew McAlpine), art direction (Ben Smith), set decoration (Anna Lynch-Robinson), and costume design (Odile Dicks-Mireaux) all show a proper, if mildewed, English reserve, and the lighting, by John de Borman, has an uncanny restraint, as if it too is being rationed. Conservatively raised by parents Jack (Alfred Molina) and Marjorie (Cara Seymour), Jenny would seem to be far from the epicenter of the cultural earthquake that would collapse the fifties into the sixties. But she’s a little braver, and more precocious, than her schoolmates, to the occasional dismay of her teacher, Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams), and the institution’s headmistress (Emma Thompson), who see her as Oxford material.

However, the enigmatic businessman who gives Jenny a ride home one day in his Bristol roadster, David (Peter Sarsgaard), sees her as something else. At least twice her age, and Jewish to boot, David is enchanted by his slightly thorny rose, who is in turn captivated by his stories of Paris and his familiarity with the worlds of art auctions, nightclubs, and racetracks. That David’s business partner, Danny (Dominic Cooper, from Mamma Mia! and The History Boys) and Danny’s girlfriend, the sexy but scatter-brained Helen (Rosamund Pike), are a rougher sort, and that the nature of their business is on the shady side isn’t too worrying. Jenny’s hooked, and so, to her surprise, are her parents, who buy the couple’s white lies, figuring that her association with a worldly type who brags about his friendship with C.S. Lewis can only improve her chances of getting into Oxford.

This is a coming-of-age story where sex isn’t the main preoccupation, despite the Polanski-ish age gap. There is sex, during Jenny’s 17th birthday jaunt to Paris, but it’s not exactly earthshaking. An Education is more about the collision of youthful ideals and adult practicalities. Coping with David, who lives in a haze of Gauloise cigarettes, French movies, and romantic daydreams, is in some ways the least of Jenny’s turbulent rites of passage. There’s school, taught by nun-like teachers whose business is turning out correctly brought-up ladies with options that are ultimately as limited as theirs, and home, which buzzes with hypocrisy. This isn’t a spoiler kind of movie, but it’s a shock, to Jenny and to us, when her strait-laced parents react the way they do to one of David’s entreaties, so mum’s the word. Who can ever forget the day when Mom and Dad, the gods who walked among us, turned out to be mere mortals after all?

Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig is best known for directing Italian for Beginners, one of the best (or at least more watchable) of the stripped-down Dogma pictures that were the arthouse rage for a time. She and Hornby bring a matching his-and-hers sensibility to this more mainstream material, he supplying a rueful wit to underpin the life lessons and she staging the scenes and directing the actors simply and clearly. I wish, though, that someone had toned down composer Paul Englishby’s score, which brims with schmaltz where there might be silence, but this is the only really wrong note.

The British cinema has a deep bench of supporting players to draw from; Williams, from Rushmore and The Sixth Sense, and of course Thompson are outstanding as authority figures whose concern about her wayward behavior runs deeper than Jenny realizes. Usually cast to intimidate, and nicely paired with Cooper, Pike (the bad Bond girl in Die Another Day) is funny without playing down to her role. The movie seemed to be wrapping up and Sally Hawkins, the star of Happy-Go-Lucky, hadn’t turned up yet, but then there she was, very unhappy in a small but key role.

I resisted Alfred Molina for years. The big-boned actor was always too broad and boorish for my taste. But playing a pair of outsized roles in 2004, Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway and Dr. Octopus in Spider-Man 2, cut him down to manageable size, and I found I liked the svelte version. He’s terrific here as Jenny’s dad, conscious of his middle position in the social pecking order while quietly, then avidly, hungering for more for his family. You feel for his entrapment.

You don’t know what to feel about David. Brits and Aussies play Americans so well I no longer notice the body snatching. I feared the worst on Broadway last week when Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman bit down, hard, on their Chicago accents in A Steady Rain, but it wasn’t long before they had me. Our performers, meanwhile, rarely cross the pond for native parts. Sarsgaard isn’t as airtight as Renee Zellweger, say, in the Bridget Jones films. The slipperiness, though, and the actor’s somewhat unformed and tentative look are good for the character, a child-man for all his irresistible airs.

“Irresistible” is the word for Mulligan. Without her the film would be conceivable, but not nearly as compelling. She was in Pride & Prejudice and the Bleak House miniseries in 2005, then caught my eye in “Blink” (2007), a spine-tingling episode of Doctor Who, after which I turned to my wife and said, “She’s going places.” And she was: I next saw her on Broadway in last fall’s revival of The Seagull, where she was a shattering Nina opposite Sarsgaard’s Trigorin. In a blonde wig she was unrecognizable in two scenes early on in Public Enemies. The 22-year-old holds the screen here, getting right to the heart of the matter of Jenny’s urges, desires, and doubts. An Education does many things well, but as a lesson in star power it’s unbeatable.

An Education opens today in New York and Los Angeles, and expands nationwide next week. Here’s the trailer, which hints at its special quality.

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