British actress Carey Mulligan has the most irresistible laugh: a goofy little blurt of tickled surprise. It's the sound of happy discovery—the perfect grace note for the bittersweet coming-of-age story An Education. Mulligan is Jenny, an Oxford-bound teen who escapes the dullsville of early-'60s suburban London when she meets older suitor David (Peter Sarsgaard); his schedule of cocktails, dancing, and shady business deals is a universe away from Jenny's regimen of Latin lessons and infuriating dinners with Mum and Dad. Casting a loving eye on its restless young heroine, the film crystallizes the ecstasy, luxuriant boredom, and let-me-out-of-here! frustration of adolescence.
That keening instant when you're teetering on the cliff's edge of the rest of your life is also captured in Bright Star, and though it's set 143 years before An Education, the films are kindred spirits. Here it's Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) whose sleepy rural world gains new colors and dimensions when she meets her soul mate, the penniless English poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw), and they forge a fervent, tragic bond. (Keats died of tuberculosis at age 25.) Directed by Jane Campion (The Piano), Bright Star is lush and dreamy, but it rumbles with the tectonic intensity of Cornish's acting: If you put your ear close enough, you can hear a girl's heart swell and split open.