A 16-YEAR-old schoolgirl must choose between her aspirations for higher learning or pursuing a romantic relationship with an older man. Will education prevail or will love triumph in the end?

This is the premise Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig tries to get across in An Education, a coming-of-age drama that appears charming on the surface, but also packs a hard-hitting lesson on the blurred line between maturity and innocence.

One of the top contenders for Best Picture in this year’s Oscars, An Education plays on the shopworn head-or-heart debate as it follows the unlikely romance between scholarly Jenny Mellor (British actress Carey Mulligan) and thirty-something David Goldman (Peter Sarsgaard). Set in 1960’s London, the movie was adapted by author Nick Hornby from the best-selling memoir of the same title by British journalist Lynn Barber.

By overtly sprucing up the image of the main character in the first few minutes, the movie entices the audience to sit and watch how the story plays in the end. Jenny is portrayed as a bright girl with an overflow of academic plums to get her admitted to Oxford, a dream forced into her by the constant nagging of her parents.

However, Jenny is discontented with her boring lifestyle, which only revolves around studying and practicing the cello. Her rote lifestyle changes after meeting art enthusiast David, who reeks both of affluence and wit.

After her brief encounters with David, Jenny finds a way out of her dull life by deciding to live with (and even marry) a man that she has just met, setting aside her Oxford dreams.

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The apparent saturation of coming-of-age tales on the big screen nowadays has made it difficult for the movie to present a plot that goes beyond the common formula of poor judgment leading to painful realizations, and ultimately ending in a resolution of sorts. But despite this, An Education eludes becoming trite through the powerful performance of Mulligan, backed by a stellar screenplay.

Furthermore, the movie presents two disparate ways of educating oneself. One can play it safe by simply learning within the four walls of a classroom, which the film portrays as limited and boring. The other kind of education can be acquired outside the four walls (aptly termed in the movie as the “University of Life”), where learning is boundless, but there is also the risk of conflict and harm, which Jenny learns the hard way.

Mulligan leaps to recognition with her conflicted and bittersweet performance as Jenny, a role which has given her the label of “the next Audrey Hepburn,” exuding the charm reminiscent of Hepburn’s iconic performance in films such as Roman Holiday and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The transition of her character from an innocent schoolgirl to a mature young lady is so believable that it pulls the audience deeper into the plot.

The curtain falls with a fitting conclusion that even the best education might not be found in a classroom. A large pool of knowledge is to be found outside, but learning this may often come with lasting, and unpredictable, results.

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