Review: An Education


It’s easy to forget that “An Education” takes place nearly a half century ago. The coming-of- age of a 16-year-old girl is one thing, but in the context of the 1960s, it’s a whole other ordeal. The way women’s roles have changed in society over the years is staggering and “An Education” is a reminder of just how bad it was. Women had little choice: be educated at a higher level or not be educated; Be a school teacher or a housewife. As the young Jenny studies vigilantly to attend Oxford, it’s hard not to be swept away as she is by her gentleman friend when he offers her a life of art, culture and extravagance that her sheltered existence never affords.

Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is far from naive, but between her father’s (Alfred Molina) wishes and her studies, she’s hardly been able to explore her hobbies beyond cello and listening to a singular French record as she longs to experience all that she’s head and read about. When a gentleman nearly twice her age (Peter Sarsgaard) pulls up in a sports car and kindly extends her invitations to concerts and jazz clubs with his wealthy young friends, she cannot resist and begins to teeter between her carved-out path and these whirlwind adventures.

The film stays intriguing by means of slight mystery: is David well-intentioned? What exactly does he do that permits him to spend the money he does? For Jenny it’s all exciting and Mulligan endears us with wide-eyed wonder and surprising sophistication, but anyone who’s come of age already knows social escapades and prestigious schools going hand in hand is too good to be true.

Outside of the complex performances, Nick Hornby’s script is what makes “An Education” a terrific film. Not only is Jenny’s journey complicated for even the most seasoned of viewers, but also the other characters all represent significant examples of where their life choices have taken them — especially the women. There is the teacher and headmistress that discourage Jenny’s behavior, Helen (Rosamund Pike) whose gorgeous looks and clothes too easily make Jenny forget how uneducated she sounds and of course her mother who doesn’t say much at all but encourages Jenny’s interests. Undoubtedly meeting David is maturing Jenny rapidly and she’s confronted with the two life choices that are available to her.

Hornby also makes sure to remind us that there are only two, because this is the 1960s. As Jenny converses with the headmistress (a lovely cameo from Emma Thompson), she questions her about what it’s all for. Should she be educated and do nothing but focus on her studies so she can end up like her? But as she learns, an education is much more. There is opportunity for a middle ground.

I suppose that many will have trouble with the multi-faceted Jenny. She’s supposed to be 16 but her interests are that of a more sophisticated person. She appears to be rational and morally grounded yet she seems to skate with David and his friends regardless of their questionability. There is a bit of head-scratching here, but the points of the film outweigh suspect character construction. Her journey is far more important.

Director Lone Scherfig gives us an elegant film that is just as much escapism as it is dramatic and, well, educational. Coming-of-age stories are always ripe with new perspective, but “An Eductation” is particularly unique in its context as well as its focus on a female main character. The female perspective on growing up is often neglected and skewed or puffed up with some juicy romance. “An Education” is much more subtle and graceful yet it delivers the same impact.

4/5 Stars

An Education
Directed by: Lone Scherfig
Written by: Nick Hornby, Lynn Barber (memoir)
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina