An Education (2009) is based on the memoir of British journalist Lynn Barber. In the early 1960s, aged sixteen, she was swept off her feet by the attentions of an older man. Fortunately, she discovered in time that he was living a lie and managed to extricate herself with no other damage than a severely bruised ego. But the very fact that Barber chose to revisit this liaison suggests that it was a formative experience in her life.
Lone Scherfig’s bitter-sweet film opens in Twickenham in 1961. Star pupil, Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is in her final year at college, and studying for the Oxbridge exams. Returning from a cello lesson in the pouring rain she accepts the offer of a lift from the smooth-talking David (Peter Sarsgaard), who happens to be driving past in his slick Bristol car. Craving sophistication, Jenny is all too ready to be seduced by a man of the world and is immediately won over by David, his debonair business associate Danny (Dominic Cooper) and the Chelsea chic of Danny’s girlfriend Helen (Rosamund Pike).
Together they visit expensive restaurants, enjoy classical concerts and jazz clubs and even attend an art auction. Eventually, however, it transpires that David and Danny’s extravagance is funded by dubious means involving the notorious property developer and slum landlord Peter Rachman (Luis Soto).
Although Jenny wants to be treated as an adult, David tries to infantilise her and delights in her schoolgirl stories and naivety. There are hints of a seedy Lolitaesque obsession, but these are downplayed in the film — helped by Mulligan’s finely judged performance. She is utterly convincing as the impressionable, gauche girl who blossoms overnight into an elegant, young woman. She has the confidence to choose the moment when she will lose her virginity to David and, when she does, is discerning enough to comment, “all that poetry and all those songs about something that lasts no time at all”.
Halfway through the film Jenny is faced with a choice – whether to marry David and continue their lavish lifestyle or to continue her education and read English at Oxford. She shouts at her long-suffering teacher: “It’s not enough to educate us…you’ve got to tell us why you are doing it…the point of an education.”
This is where the film’s emotional heart lies. Jenny’s education is not only an academic one, but a rite of passage into adulthood and emotional maturity and the biggest lesson of all is that anything worth having in life has to be worked at.
Olivia Williams and Emma Thompson give great cameos as Jenny’s English teacher and disapproving headmistress respectively. Pike’s vacant expression as the super-ditzy Helen is also memorable. The decision to use an American actor to play David may be strange, but it’s one that pays off. Scripted by Nick Hornby, there is a vivid sense of Britain emerging from its post-war austerity, and a ‘hip’ London just waiting to swing. I also loved the attention to period detail – the accents, clothes, hair, choice of music and even Jenny’s parents’ suburban sitting-room.
However, it is Mulligan’s performance that impresses most. Her childish vulnerability, her mischievous smile and the sparkle in her eyes draw you in and when she cries you weep with her.
An Education is a tender portrait of a girl on the brink of adulthood and an uplifting film about those all-defining moments that have the potential to change our lives forever.