The screenplay of this movie was adapted from memoir by the British journalist, Lynn Barber.
1961. Jenny, a student from a middle-class family, is languishing in the London suburb of Twickenham, preparing for her A levels in a posh private school her parents can hardly afford. She wants to read English in Oxford and then she wants to become a Frenchwoman – she is aware that few opportunities exist for young intelligent women like her in the UK. At 16, and socially starving, she seems less inclined to learn from the mistakes of different wayward romantic heroines she reads about than to join their ranks.
One rainy afternoon she meets an older man who gives her and her cello a lift. His name is David Goldman, he is thirtyish and he is a Jew; he drives around in a maroon limited edition sports car and he seems very well off. Jenny finds David quite harmless at first – never pushy, rather nice than handsome, very suave, very generous and as smitten with her as she is with him. He can show Jenny the life she’s only yearned for so far, squiring her to art auctions, concerts and posh clubs, plying her with Champagne and cigarettes and high-minded talk. He can even charm her parents enough to make them allow their teen daughter more freedom than she and they ever imagined possible.
Soon enough Jenny’s conservative father, Jack, all but delivers Jenny to her seducer tied up in a bow, believing that this is an opportunity for her social advancement and a better future –cheaper than Oxford anyway. Nobody spots any problems, nobody asks difficult questions or thinks about investigating the dashing boyfriend. Only after dropping out of school and getting engaged to David Jenny discovers his second life and duplicity. That and his real family.
|Danny and Helen, the glamorous friends of David
Seen from a certain angle, that movie could look like a classic story of sex abuse and class shame ; it was such a story up to a point but fortunately it was also far more – an extremely funny social comedy about coming into age in difficult times. I did appreciate such an approach. Of course Jenny was tricked and deceived; of course David was a predator; yes, it might have ended in a total disaster. Still from a psychological point of view everything was far more real just because it was sometimes rather funnily absurd. Jenny’s parents get enamoured with David almost as much (if not more) as their daughter although they should have definitely known better. Jenny schedules losing her virginity like other girls schedule a visit to a dentist or to a beautician’s. She is thrown out of her school not because she is pregnant or she leads a dissolute life but because she is engaged to a Jew and the headmistress (a fantastic Emma Thompson) happens to be a dumb anti-Semite (by the way her answer to Jenny’s remark that Jesus Christ was a Jew as well is simply priceless!). It’s a mark of the film’s sophistication that it doesn’t rush our judgement – at first it doesn’t portray David as predatory, or the pair’s relationship as seedy making it far more complex.
There are no weak actors in this one. David was played very well by Mr. Sarsgaard – he showed that compulsive liar’s sixth sense for other people’s weaknesses. He picks up on Jenny’s need to be taken seriously – and to escape from her boring world of repetitive chores, Latin homework and false hobbies. He turns her parents into his simpering, giggling fans, and he introduces Jenny to a thrilling new world of restaurants, nightclubs and naughty weekends in Paris. Jenny is a very willing participant, up to a point of course, persuaded to tolerate things she would have never believed she could tolerate. In fact some of the best parts of the film show Jenny’s dreamy delight in going out à quatre with David and his glamorous friends, Danny and Helen, who turn out not to be the high-living socialites Jenny takes them for, but something rather more common and tawdry. The director is allowing doubt and then revulsion to mix, drop by drop, into our impression of them. Jenny plays along with their charade, as if determined to follow her experiment to its conclusion. Physically and emotionally, she ages as the film proceeds, instructing David, “No baby talk. Treat me like a grown-up”, and drolly summarizing her anti-climactic loss of virginity with the words: “All that poetry and all those songs about something that lasts no time at all!” Her education has taught her a lot but at a great cost.
Traditionally, it’s the intelligent working-class girl who gets ideas and a boyfriend above her station, gets into trouble and has to get it sorted, most often by eating humble pie. But this girl is middle class and unplanned pregnancy isn’t what happens: what is aborted, or almost aborted, is Jenny’s Oxford career and her belief in great people living in an ideal, exciting world out there.
Still the real subject of “An Education” seems to be the era itself, with the changing mores and social roles of men and women. What Jenny craves is not the fact of adulthood or sex but full access to the very idea of interesting world that is the opposite of the boring, little, average England she knows and loathes; a world where you cannot step outside your social role or you will be judged harshly by the likes of her Headmistress. Even as David is taking advantage of her innocence, she is, at first unwittingly and then more brazenly, using him to find her way to that better world, which she identifies especially with France and Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism.
You might ask: why on earth didn’t Jenny question her shabby lover more closely, especially after a series of serious warning bells? She saw him steal and heard him lie through his teeth. It seems she was simply too restrained by her English politeness, and ashamed of her English lack of sophistication. She was taken in, as we all could be, by someone brazen enough to believe in his own lies. It’s a sad, painful comedy, but the lovely performance from Mulligan makes it a very enjoyable film.
Finally let me add something about the soundtrack which was also painfully beautiful; so beautiful that I had to watch the movie for the second time in order to focus entirely on these great, poignant French songs and music. Done to perfection.
A highly recommendable, intelligent and very enjoyable movie with a great ending and incredible soundtrack – Heidenkind/Tasha, I owe you for recommending this one to me!