It’s 1961 and attractive, bright 16-year-old schoolgirl, Jenny (Carey Mulligan, who was 22-years-old when she shot the film) is poised on the brink of womanhood, dreaming of a rarefied, Gauloise-scented existence as she sings along to Juliette Gréco in her Twickenham bedroom. Stifled by the tedium of adolescent routine, Jenny can’t wait for adult life to begin.
Meanwhile, she’s a diligent student, excelling in every subject, except the Latin that her parentally-ambitious father is convinced will land her the place she (and he) dream of at Oxford University.
One rainy day, her suburban life is upended by the arrival of an unsuitable suitor, 30-ish David (Peter Sarsgaard). Urbane and witty, David instantly unseats Jenny’s stammering schoolboy admirer, Graham (Matthew Beard). To her frank amazement, he even manages to charm her conservative parents Jack (Alfred Molina) and Marjorie (Cara Seymour), and effortlessly overcomes any instinctive objections to their daughter’s older, Jewish suitor.
David introduces Jenny to a glittering new world of classical concerts and late-night suppers with his attractive friend and business partner, Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Danny’s girlfriend, the beautiful but vacuous Helen (Rosamund Pike). David replaces Jenny’s traditional education with his own version, picking her up from school in his Bristol Roadster and whisking her off to art auctions and smoky clubs.
Her headmistress (Emma Thompson) is scandalized and her English teacher Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams, in an award-deserving performance) is deeply disappointed that her prize pupil seems determined to throw away her evident gifts and certain chance of higher education.
This British independent film is brilliantly directed by Lone Scherfig, with a screenplay by Nick Hornby (who also wrote the novel About a Boy that was made into one of 2002’s best films), adapted from a slim memoir by Lynn Barber about her 1961 schoolgirl romance with a man 20-years her senior. Although Mulligan’s star-shaping performance clearly steals the show, the veteran Sarsgaard isn’t far behind her. I still remember with admiration his exceptional performance in 2003’s “Shattered Glass.” This one is just as good. Sarsgaard perfectly captures the charm necessary to make the charade work. Keeping up with them is Williams, who had to be beautied-down to look like the dowdy schoolmarm. She isn’t in many scenes but she lights up the screen in the ones in which she does appear.
This is the rare film that combines outstanding writing, directing and acting that keep it in mind long after it ends.