Initially marketed as a vehicle for its male lead, Peter Sarsgaard as the aging playboy David Goldman, Lone Scherfig's "An Education" has emerged instead as a showcase for its women. Set in the first stirrings of social ferment of early 1960s London and its suburbs, this fine ensemble film centers on a bright young woman's detour from her path to Oxford University when she accepts a ride in the rain from a charming sleaze with secrets. As Jenny, 24-year-old Carey Mulligan is generating Oscar buzz for her witty, nuanced performance as a 16-year-old sampling possible and widely divergent futures. As Jenny's comrade-side kick in the clandestine adventures of their bad-boy boyfriends, Rosamund Pike as Helen strikes just the right balance between an older, worldlier and eventually tackier woman who fusses with Jenny's hair and wardrobe now but would be implausible as an appropriate friend later. As the haughty head-mistress whose few short appearances embody distilled and blindered authority, the versatile Emma Thompson is as perfect here as she was in her recent cameo as "sexual legend" in another recent British import depicting roughly the same period, "Pirate Radio." As Jenny's mother, Cara Seymour is well-intended and a little swept-away by the times and her daughter's slick suitor, but -- crucially -- never depicted as foolish. (One can say the same for Alfred Molina as Jenny's dad and for Jenny's young aspiring boyfriend, who may be a tad bumbling but knows when to make his exit gracefully.)
Then there is Miss Stubbs. As the plain teacher whose literary lessons about Mr. Rochester of "Jane Eyre" should warn us and Jenny too of what's coming, Olivia Williams just won the Invisible Woman Award from the national Women Film Critics Circle, given for the performance by a woman most ignored by critics. On the WFCC's annual awards show, broadcast live from WBAI Pacifica in New York City on December 9th (with a patch-in from WAER 88.3 FM here in Syracuse by yours truly), Chicago film critic Jan Huttner called Williams' performance as Miss Stubbs "the heart and conscience of the film." Huttner wondered how come so many male reviewers felt blind-sided by the "sudden" change of tone in the movie's third act, since Miss Stubbs' telegraphs the outcome from virtually the first scene -- certainly well before David's partner in crime Danny (Dominic Cooper) rolls his eyes to Helen at David's fabrications.