Sixteen-year old school girl Jenny (Carey Mulligan) has an orderly life because her parents have made careful plans for her. She will finally get a good grade in Latin so she can get overall high grades, do well on her year-end exams and get herself into Oxford. She shouldn’t practice her cello too much even though she loves it because music is just an extracurricular activity–while it shows she has a hobby–a good thing to present on her college interview–passionate hobbies do not make a college education.
Like all her friends in 1961 in Twickenham, a suburb of London, Jenny sneaks cigarettes, pokes fun at her teachers, especially prim Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams), reads French novels, giggles at the inexperienced schoolboys who try to smooch with her, and dreams of experiencing real adventures. The only thing she knows for sure that she does not want is to turn out like her mother, Marjorie (Cara Seymour), a sweet, but submissive woman who has forgotten that she had a life before Jenny came long.
Running the household with a heavy, fear-based hand is her bombastic, penny-pinching father Jack (Alfred Molina). Both parents are devoted to their only daughter, but their goals for her are all materialistic. They want her to go to Oxford, not to help her form a life-long passion of learning, but because there she will find a proper husband, a proper husband being one who has a greater income than her father has and who will have the connections to bring her material comforts. The most important thing to Dad is connections. As he says, “Becoming a famous author is good, but not as good as knowing a famous author.” And he’s serious.
On her way home from school, struggling with her books and her cello in the pouring rain, a fancy car pulls up and the man driving it offers her a lift. He’s sweet and funny and makes a big deal out of understanding why she wouldn’t want to get into the car with a total stranger. In other words, he says and does all the right things both to charm and disarm her. This is David (Peter Sarsgaard), a self-made man, a music lover, a man who buys museum quality paintings, who travels, eats well and has chic, wealthy friends who live in stupendous apartments (Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike). David is smitten with Jenny and he sets out on a calculated campaign to not only win her over, but to impress his worthiness on her parents.
With David, Jenny’s whole life changes. She goes to fancy restaurants and auctions and live concerts. She piles her hair on top of her head, wears negligees and one day sports a tiny diamond on her finger. It’s like a fairytale–and like all fairytales there are dark shadows looming. Jenny sees some of them early on, but she’s so entranced with the excitement of what David offers that she makes the decision to overlook his inconsistencies. And so do her parents. They are so impressed with David’s wealth, that they throw parental caution to the winds. Can parents be so stupid, you ask? Yes, they can, when greed and poverty-consciousness blind them to their conscience.
When the school principal (Emma Thompson) warns Jenny that she is treading on dangerous waters with David, Jenny haughtily dismisses her warnings and is even more determined to do what David wants. She leaves school without taking her exams and starts making wedding plans.
Finally the day of reckoning comes. We in the audience, just as seduced as Jenny was, are heartbroken when the truth about David is discovered. We were equally dazzled by his quiet smiles, his sincere yearnings, his persistence, his ability to always find the right word and the right present at the right time. Heck, we liked this guy and we couldn’t wait until the day when he and Jenny got married.
And then Jenny’s real education starts.
Danish femme director Lore Scherfig (Italian for Beginners) has turned Lyn Barber’s memoir into a near-flawless coming-of-age drama. Though it’s 1960s London, the story could have taken place anywhere, anytime, when women (young or old) make themselves vulnerable to deceitful men. What’s so touching about this particular story is the painful failure of Jenny’s parents to exercise wisdom. Jenny is literally still a child and can be forgiven for being innocent. But her parents are supposedly mature adults–their decisions are the deepest kind of betrayal and that is the quiet horror of the film.
All performances are powerful but especially Casey Mulligan as Jenny. She has one of the most innocent faces on screen today, a wide-eyed openness that makes you want to love and protect her, yet there’s a fire within her that you know is unquenchable. She’s positively enchanting. Because you know in your heart that Jenny, as played by Casey Mulligan, will turn out well, the film ends on a note, that although bittersweet, is also glorious. For anyone who appreciates a simple, captivating, finely tuned drama, don’t miss An Education.