LOVE or education? That is the question posed to the lead character of Lone Scherfig’s 2009 film An Education.
Set in 1960s London, Jenny Mellor (Carey Mulligan) is a 16-year-old near-straight A student (just Latin is letting her down) who has her sights on a place at Oxford University. A curious, mature and fiercely intelligent young woman – who better to play her than the magnificent and bright Mulligan — Jenny is yearning for a time when she can leave the constraints of her home life to read English.
She sits in her room and drifts away to the poetic sounds of Juliette Gréco, only to be interrupted by disproving yells from downstairs. Her father, Jack (Alfred Molina), has little time for Jenny’s Parisian dreaminess and favours a more conservative outlook on her future. Get a first-class education or get married to a lawyer.
Jenny makes her tolerance for the latter option clear. Well, that is until a suave 30-something gentleman enters her life. David (Peter Sarsgaard) swoops Jenny – and her cello – into his sports car and before we know he has worked his charm on the teenager’s parents. David is free to whisk his young lover off on dates around the city and later out of the country.
This newfound freedom takes humble, middle-class high-schooler Jenny away from her familiar surroundings and under the wing of upper class, glitzy London. She is taken to classical music concerts and smoke-filled restaurants with sultry jazz singers. Here Jenny is also introduced to David’s welcoming friend Danny (Dominic Cooper) and his wife Helen (Rosamund Pike).
A taste of this lifestyle is seductive for Jenny and understandably so. She is even dressed to look like Audrey Hepburn by the slightly vapid Helen – it is strange to see Pike play someone so dim. It is all such a far cry from the blandness of school life and Jenny’s bedroom. Life with David offers a quick and lavish transition into adulthood.
Yet there are growing indications that David may not be in Jenny’s best interests. However cosily it is done, the singing of Beth Rowley’s You Got Me Wrapped Around Your Little Finger hints at a level of love-blindness and perhaps manipulation. Is David interested in her because she is smart and beyond her years or a result of her being young and malleable? David’s use of babyish bedroom names adds to this concern, as does the secrecy he keeps around his profession.
Jenny is soon left to decide whether she wants to go to Oxford or start a life with David. Will she choose education and independence or domestic comforts and glamorous pleasures? In this case, references to Jane Eyre at the start of the film will not be lost on many.
Mulligan’s captivating performance leads a wonderful British cast including a young Ellie Kendrick and a brief appearance from Emma Thompson. For that and satisfying coming-of-age story, An Education gets a solid B+.
This was review 24/30 in April’s Close-up Culture Monthly Film Challenge – Female Filmmakers.