Jenny is 16 and a virgin. David is twice her age and stylish. And so begins An Education, a film brilliantly adapted for the screen by author Nick Hornby, who finds a timeless account of the clash between strict, practical education and chaotic, intrinsic life in 1960s London.
Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a devoted student with a proclivity for modern novels and French pop records, doing her best to get to Oxford and please her domineering father (Alfred Molina) in the process. She even plays the cello, mainly because it looks good as a hobby for her application.
Itâ€™s when sheâ€™s standing on the curb, sopping wet from the rain with her cello, that Jenny meets David (Peter Sarsgaard). He offers to rescue her cello from the downpour, while she walks alongside the car. The scene is delightfully sweet and funny, and serves as a great opening. Eventually, Jenny gets into his car, and quickly starts involving herself in a world that sheâ€™s only beginning to discover on her own. The two begin to spend more and more time together, with David taking Jenny to concerts, fancy restaurants, and plying her with drinks, cigarettes, and talk of the finer things in life.
David is captivated by Jennyâ€™s passion â€“ the way she respects intelligence, her youthful cleverness â€“ and in return, Jenny is fascinated with David and his glamorous lifestyle; this is the very David who attended â€œthe University of Lifeâ€ and makes a good bit of his money by stealing and selling gems (i.e. maps and paintings) with his friend Danny (Dominic Cooper). Along for the ride is Dannyâ€™s girlfriend Helen (Rosamund Pike), who is as beautiful as she is empty and dim-witted. She dresses Jenny up like a doll, even going so far as to lend her lingerie for the groupâ€™s weekend away in Oxford. Helen doesnâ€™t like or understand Jenny, but a sense of camaraderie develops between them as the pairs converge.
David is chillingly skilled at manipulating Jennyâ€™s parents, and getting them to give their permission to go places, and eventually he even manages to take Jenny to Paris. He truly loves Jenny â€“ at least in a way that he can understand, and in truth, there isnâ€™t actually anything about their relationship that rings false. David never seems to be fixed in the cheap, tawdry world he participates in. Though you could easily choose to be disgusted by their affair, there is too much of a spirit about Jenny herself to make anything she decides truly contemptible. Whatever we may find out eventually (or assume based on their age difference), David is no predator. Though he is the reason for her academic and societal fall from grace, itâ€™s simply a side effect of the situation. The world he gives to Jenny no longer dazzles him â€“ itâ€™s more that he has taught himself to like what he likes.
What Jenny craves is not sex itself â€“ though she does schedule the loss of her virginity for her 17th birthday â€“ but a connection to the idea of sexuality. She is bored with England, and scared that her academic plans will quite literally bore her to death, too. Even as David takes her innocence, she uses him to make her way into a world that interests her in the way that France does.
Even as she begins to see through their enchanting world, and David in particular, Jenny goes along with all of it. This proves to be predictable, but also convoluted, as doomed romances go. Jenny never hides her infatuation with David, which then becomes the talk of her school, and in turn, seriously disappoints her tender, perceptive young teacher (Olivia Williams). And even more disapproving is her off-putting headmistress (Emma Thompson). At one point, Jenny returns to the headmistress and says, â€œI suppose you think Iâ€™m a ruined woman.â€ Her headmistress responds matter-of-factly, â€œYouâ€™re not a woman.â€ With that, Jenny is newly humbled.
But when everything comes crashing down â€“ as it inevitably does â€“ it is Jenny who picks up the pieces on her own. Her parents, quietly ashamed at their ability to be completely influenced by David, try to empathize with Jennyâ€™s plight.
Jenny finally tells off her father, saying, â€œOh, youâ€™re my father again, are you? What were you when you encouraged me to throw my life away? Iâ€™m a silly schoolgirl. Was, anyway. Silly schoolgirls are always being seduced by glamorous older men. But what about you two?â€ There is no denying her words.
But let us remember: Jenny is unapologetically 16. She loves and lives as only a schoolgirl can. She is brilliant and clumsy at the same time. Thatâ€™s just adolescence. Sure, the movie paints a perfectly melancholy love affair between two atypical people, but like everything else, there is good and bad throughout. There are times when you want to take Jenny by the hand, but you canâ€™t. Only she can find her way back. Her adventures â€“ the soaring highs and the devastating lows â€“ are important. The assumption is correct: you canâ€™t have everything, and you certainly canâ€™t have it at 16. Thatâ€™s the beauty of An Education â€“ David is never meant to triumph over school, but he represents a more immediate future, and so he is infinitely more dangerous and precious to Jenny. We, like Jenny, learn that an “educationâ€ can cover a multitude of sins.