Carey Mulligan in An Education: A Star Is Born

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Kerry Brown / Sony Pictures

Carey Mulligan in An Education

"I love the pre-Raphaelites!" gushes Jenny (Carey Mulligan), with the unself-conscious exuberance of a bright 16-year-old. The star pupil at an élite London girls' school, Jenny has her eyes on Oxford, but can't help giving a longing glance at the world of luxe, of fine art and good restaurants, that she is mad to enter. Admission to the dolce vita is the apple held out by her new friend David (Peter Sarsgaard), a suave businessman twice her age. He, in turn, is seduced by Jenny's intellectual brio and, for all her poise, innocence. With the same connoisseur's appreciation he might focus on an undervalued painting, David murmurs, "Isn't it wonderful to find a young person who wants to know things?" It's hard not to fall in love with a girl so in love with life's prizes and surprises.

People are getting that same glow from Mulligan, the 24-year-old star of the Brit romantic comedy–drama An Education. Critics and moviegoers keep saying, "Not since Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday ..." — burdensome praise for any young actress, but a commendation Mulligan has earned. She's as yet unknown to the mass American audience: she had a small, unremarkable role in this summer's Public Enemies, and will be seen in December with Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman and Tobey Maguire in Brothers. Yet she seems assured of a career breakthrough and an Oscar nomination for An Education, both because she's at the center of this appealing movie from first to last and because, through her craft and force of personality, she exudes the sorcerer's ability to make the camera and the audience adore her.

In cool appraisal, feature for feature, she doesn't match up to Hepburn. (Who in the world could?) She has the round, puddingy face of a young Angela Lansbury or Joan Plowright. Your eyes are drawn to the deep dimple that, when she laughs, runs up her left cheek like a sweet scar; and your ears to her rich cello voice, so mature and supple an instrument for someone who's played girls on the cusp of womanhood since her movie debut as Keira Knightley's sister Kitty in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice.

In most of her roles since, she's been the strong, idealized sister or daughter: Daniel Radcliffe's "best beloved sister" in the TV drama My Son Jack; one of a pair of innocent cousins at the heart of an endless lawsuit in the BBC'S 2006 Bleak House; the rebellious daughter of a working-class Prime Minister in another BBC series, The Amazing Mrs Pritchard; and the landowner's daughter who's desperate to be an actress in the Royal Court production of The Seagull that went to Broadway last year and earned her a Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Featured Actress.

What Mulligan has that makes her stand out from other professional beguilers is a warm gaze with laser intensity, and the gift of thought transference: the viewer always knows what's going on inside her characters. She doesn't turn on the starkest emotions but finds them within her. When she gets the news of her brother's disappearance in My Son Jack, her devastation is both extravagant and acute; too much seems exactly the right amount. Her Nina in The Seagull wore emotions so raw that Mulligan was in a sluice of tears for nearly the entire evening.

In An Education, which has been cannily adapted from English journalist Lynn Barber's memoir by Nick Hornby and sensitively visualized by Danish director Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners), Mulligan is again in coming-of-age mode. In the pre-swinging London of 1961, Jenny is already a star of sorts: the smartest, most self-possessed student in her class. Her goal is to be accepted into Oxford; she wants it, and so does her rather overbearing father Jack (Alfred Molina) in the staid, lower-middle-class suburb of Twickenham. But Jenny knows that there's more to life than excelling in her courses, swanning and smoking with her girlfriends and lying in her bedroom communing with Juliette Greco records. She needs an education in life studies.

David, who makes money somehow in real estate, might be her tutor in that regard. He takes her to concerts and auctions, and for a weekend at Oxford. Yes, he wants to go to bed with her, but that's a pleasure she has decided to defer till she's 17. All she asks is that, when the time comes, David should "treat me like an adult." (Apres-sex, she remarks, with more curiosity than regret, "All that poetry, and all those songs, about something that lasts no time at all.") Father Jack should be opposed to David as a suitor, but he practically pimps the girl to him. Jack's rule for courtship is the same as for placement at Oxford: he wants Jenny to consort with the upper class so she can marry well. What else is an education for?

For learning how to treat people. That's a lesson Jenny must take at school — not so much from her starchy headmistress (Emma Thompson) as from her home-room teacher. Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams) is one of those quiet beauties who dress severely, perhaps to punish the world for not noticing their loveliness. In an American movie about high school she would pull out her hairpins and do a pole dance; here she's the voice of maternal reason. Jenny's romance with David has deepened, and she has started telling off her superiors, recklessly burning academic bridges she might need to cross on a return trip. Miss Stubbs urges Jenny "to go to Oxford, no matter what. 'Cause if you don't you'll break my heart."

Teachers' and schoolgirls' hearts are made to be broken, and An Education makes that trip too. Virtually the entire cast contributes to make it an enchanting ride. Sarsgaard, a stalwart of Amer-indie films (Kinsey, Elegy, Jarhead) who as Trigorin was also Mulligan's love interest in The Seagull, easily inhabits David, making him a creature of charm and mystery. The smaller roles are nicely filled out as well, including Cara Seymour as Jenny's quiet mother and Matthew Beard as a gauche student whose dreams of dating a precocious teen Jenny and Jack keep smashing.

But Mulligan is the film's headline, pulse and revelation. In its blithely subversive way, her starmaking performance is a co-conspirator with the movie. Both of them win you over with smart talk and pretty feelings, then kick you in the heart.