‘An Education’ for Life

A finely crafted and captivating coming-of-age film by Danish director Lone Scherfig

Carey Mulligan as Jenny and Peter Sarsgaard as David in An Education | Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

An Education is a finely crafted and captivating new film by Danish director Lone Scherfig, displaying her sure instinct for illuminating the quirkiness of human nature. Based on Lynn Barber’s 2003 essay in the British literary journal Granta, the film narrates the author’s journey from innocence to experience – how in the early 1960s, as a 16 year-old schoolgirl, she was seduced by a stylish and fun-loving older man who introduces her to a high life that nearly derails her own.

When novelist Nick Hornby read the piece he immediately recognized what he calls the story’s “unusual mix of high comedy and deep sadness.” Hornby fleshes out Barber’s brief memoir into a feature length script that is complete with a sharp screenplay and deliciously witty dialogue.

An Education is an inversion of the tradition of the ‘kitchen-sink’ dramas of the 1960s. In this case it is not a working class girl who gets into ‘trouble’ and has to have it sorted – rather it is a middle-class girl who almost loses her opportunity to go to Oxford. It’s a sort of female version of Emlyn Williams’ The Corn is Green, where a thirst for experience could mean the death of dreams.

This film is visually stylized to bring the early 60s to vibrant life with fascinating specificity – the time and place, the fashions, the music, the behavioural codes and the social climate of still-emerging post-war Britain. It is an exercise in subjective cultural hindsight and the view from here is inevitably infiltrated with a bittersweet nostalgia, we can also look at this time knowing that within a few years the swinging sixties would usher in a dramatically new way of life – an explosion of youth culture, consumerism and The Beatles.

Lynn – renamed “Jenny” – blends assurance, vulnerability and humour are magnificently played by the talented and luminous Carey Mulligan, marking an impeccable performance by a newcomer. Characterisation in general in An Education is, in fact, another of the film’s great strengths – well developed, perfectly cast and enriched by the several cameo appearances that run throughout.

Jenny is lively and intelligent, an only child with doting if suffocating parents, struggling to live within the confines and boredom of a lower-middle-class suburbia. In the early 60s, France was synonymous with the height of cultural sophistication and Jenny plays Juliette Greco records in her room singing along to the chansons, and peppering her conversation with French phrases, declaring at one point that she’s “going to be French and wear black.”

Jenny is being groomed for Oxford, a path that is carved out for her with quasi-military precision by her parents, Jack (in a brilliant portrayal of well-intentioned provincialism by Alfred Molina) and Marjorie (the reliable Cara Seymour).  A civil servant, Jack is still shaped by a post-war austerity, concerned that money for extra tuition does not grow on trees and a firm believer in homework. Marjorie is semi-repressed, trapped in domesticity, but still is more sensitive to Jenny’s yearnings, and we can well imagine that before routine and convention ground her down she once had vitality and ambition too. Both are convinced that their daughter must ‘get on’ in life and have the opportunities they never had. They insist she play in an orchestra to show the Oxford administration she is a ‘joiner-inner.’

One rainy day when Jenny is carrying her cello home from a rehearsal, David (Peter Sarsgaard), a thirty-something man she has never seen before, pulls up at the bus stop in his flashy Bristol sports car and offers her a lift, “To get her “cello out of the rain” – an offer she eventually accepts. He has a way of making everything seem safe and exciting at the same time. This marks the beginning of another type of education – an education in life.

David is everything Jenny’s shy and nervous schoolboy admirer is not. He is a smooth operator – immensely charming, funny, worldly, sophisticated. Being Jewish, he is also perceived as exotic, other and even forbidden. When ‘by chance’ David runs into Jenny again, he offers to take her to a concert:

“Do you go to concerts?” he asks.

“No. ‘We’ don’t believe in concerts,” says Jenny. “But I assure you, they’re real,” he counters. He will have to ask her parents.

From the moment he steps into the living room – while Jack is making a less than flattering comment about meeting “a Jew” – we begin to see David’s remarkable social agility, opportunism and adroit skills in manipulation. He is totally disarming, flattering Marjorie that she could be Jenny’s sister; Jack does not want to be labelled a bigot and acquiesces to Jenny going out for the evening. Ultimately, David’s seduction extends to the whole family; he works his magic on Jack and Marjorie, so that they too become more carefree and animated.

David offers Jenny the experience of life she yearns for and she comes alive. As she discovers a thrilling new world of sophisticated late night suppers, art auctions, classical concerts, nightclubs and weekends in Paris, it is hard not to cheer her on, even if we suspect it will all end in tears. At last she is being treated like a grown-up. Scherfig succeeds in creating an intoxicating mood in these scenes that emanate the exhilaration of being young and the heady pleasures of new experience. The performances by Jenny and David are perfectly nuanced, the easy rapport and chemistry between them is exquisitely captured in the dialogue and in the way they glance at one another. However, as fond as Jenny is of David, we are left to suspect that she is as much, if not more, in love with her deliverance from boredom into this new world of glamor and excitement.

And so Jenny begins to lead a double life – going to school during the week and taking off with David on weekends. She quickly grows very fond of David’s friend and business partner Danny (Dominic Cooper) and his very sweet but vacuous night-club singer girlfriend Helen –played to great comic effect by Rosamund Pike.

Over time Jenny learns that David is not all he seems, that there is a chasm between his sophistication and his decency. The lifestyle she is enjoying with him is funded by stolen goods and David’s business connections to Peter Rachman, a Polish racketeer who built up a property empire in London in the early 60s by moving immigrant West Indians into apartment buildings, and thus making them “uninhabitable” to the mostly-white sitting tenants protected by rent control. He is, she realizes, a confidence man, but she chooses to continue the relationship.

When her headmistress (Emma Thompson) finds out she is ‘engaged to a Jew,’ Jenny is expelled from school. What is the point of education, she wonders, deeply unsatisfied with the prescribed roles for girls. “It doesn’t have to be teaching,” the headmistress tells her. “There’s always the Civil Service.” Jenny’s father agrees to the engagement, and Jenny drops out of school without taking her A-levels. If all she needed to do in life was to find a husband, she tells her parents, she should have been trawling the clubs rather than going to school.

Contrast is a constant device in the narrative and employed to great effect throughout An Education. The characters are foils to one another – David is in another league from Jenny’s parents, he has ‘class’ and money, and can work his charm on anyone. Although Jenny is still a schoolgirl, her new experiences set her apart from the other girls at school who seem much less mature. Next to Helen she is more educated and intellectually able, next to her ‘old –maidish’ headmistress she is more questioning of the status quo, and next to her mother it is clear that Jenny has freedoms and possibilities her mother was never able to experience.

The dullness and claustrophobia of Jenny’s existence in the semi-detached house in Twickenham is also played out in visual contrasts in the cinematography. We see drab shots of it at night, the mother at the kitchen sink; there is little ‘life’ or flamboyance in the house until David turns up. The stillness of this imagery also reinforces the home as both a place of stability and stagnation. Jenny’s transformation from the conformity of her grey school uniform to the height of fashion with the iconic look of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (the hit film of that time) is into a dynamic world that bursts and pulsates with culture, style, colour and life.

An Education ultimately succeeds in exposing the moral ambiguity, vanities and transference of desire of all its characters. The positioning of our subjectivity with Jenny’s keeps us in allegiance with her; we know what she knows and are naively unaware of the upset that lies ahead, the impact of which will reverberate like a shock wave when it comes. There is a lot more to this film that is best left to discover for yourself. But rest assured: There is little doubt that we have all been taken for a ride, conned by David, and our own fantasies.

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