One of the downsides to expanding the list of Academy Awards nominees from five films to ten is that it gives a movie like An Education the opportunity to sneak in when it really doesn't deserve to be there. I've considered spending more time and energy explaining why An Education is lackluster entertainment at its most pedestrian, but it's not worth wasting an entire review on. Therefore, I shall be brief.
Technically speaking, An Education is a competent film with a nice cast. The script is exactly what you'd expect this film to be: young girl in a slightly repressive family / society meets older stranger who awakens her to the world outside of schoolwork and middle class life, only to turn out to be "dangerous" or, at least deceptive about his real story. She rebels against the forces of rigid standards and medium expectations, gets hurt, learns something about what life is really like, then grows up. Cut to credits.
And that's it. That's exactly what happens in An Education without the slightest deviation. Throw in a little casual racism and antisemitism, set it in London in the early sixties, and you have a pretty boring movie. Seriously, if you've seen the kind of movie I mentioned in the previous paragraph once, you've seen An Education. Nick Hornby (adapting the screenplay from Lynn Barber's memoirs) wrote a screenplay that is utterly predictable from beginning to end. Lone Scherfig's direction is right down the middle, save for a terrible montage involving a lovers' trip to France halfway into the film.
The cast is really the only thing saving this film from the Cap'n turning An Education off before it ends, and even that's hit and miss. In my Crazy Heart review, I suggested that most of the actors work hard to overcome the lack of character they're dealt, but in An Education, it's even harder.
Carey Mulligan's Jenny gets the lion's share of screen time, but it doesn't help her that the script places her in the moral high ground no matter what, so that Jenny can even escape the events of the film and simply pretend they never happened when she finally gets to Oxford. Peter Sarsgaard's David is in the film long enough to reveal his secret, then he vanishes from the end of the movie entirely, as though he never existed. He's pleasant with a British accent but thoroughly untrustworthy from moment one, so it becomes a waiting game of "how naive is Jenny?"
Olivia Williams and Emma Thompson have thankless roles where, despite being proven correct in their suspicions of Jenny's relationship with David (and subsequent dropping out of school) have to be the villain who refuses to admit her back (Thompson) or the "oh, poor Jenny. You insulted me for having a terrible life and now you want me to help you get to Oxford" (Williams). Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour have nothing to do other than be duped by David, and Matthew Beard and Rosamund Pike serve no purpose other than to make you suspicious of Sargaard while Jenny defiantly throws her life away.
If you're about to say "well, she's learning something, stupid. That's why it's called AN EDUCATION," then allow me to swiftly rebuke your comment. Jenny starts the film planning to go to Oxford, and ends the film at Oxford. In fact, despite the fact that she spends several months with a thief who preys on racist old women to buy up their property when they move and who has a wife and child (and has done this very same cradle-robbing exercise before... oh, did I not mention that Jenny is 16 going on 17 in the film?), she simply returns to her studies after he ceases to be in the movie and based on the narration that closes the film, she simply behaves as though the affair never happened. She learned nothing based on the film we're presented.
At some point, I was hoping that An Education would do something - anything - interesting, but instead it plays the same notes you've heard over and over again without bringing something new to the table. Since the script, direction, and acting are all okay, I suppose that it's not surprising it ranks well on IMDB, but even for comfort food An Education is too blase. Alas, one little nomination will do wonders for a movie that doesn't deserve the attention...