Although 16-year-olds probably shouldn’t date men twice their age, it does make for a great film.
“An Education” centers around the story of Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a 16-year-old prep school student in Twickenham, London, who dreams of “reading” (American translation = studying) English at Oxford. She is bright, beautiful and witty, bringing with her all the ideals one should expect of a young schoolgirl out to conquer the world. She has romantic fantasies of becoming une parisienne and living la vie française some day: smoking cigarettes, listening to Jacques Brel and wearing all black. She is already well on her way, quoting français and listening to Juliette Gréco. However, Jenny’s life takes an unexpected turn when David (Peter Sarsgaard), a charming man twice her senior, pulls up in his smart Bristol sports car one rainy day, cooing, “Hello, I’m a music lover, and I’m afraid for your cello.” And so the romance begins: with charm and joviality that remain crucial aspects of the narrative throughout the film.
Jenny is quickly swept away by this elegant man and his glamorous friends, couple Helen (Rosamund Pike) and Danny (Dominic Cooper). She is impressed by the beauty and style of her new older friends, their elegant possessions and the plethora of fancy parties and events they whisk into (and out of). Life seems full of ease and excitement; every day brings with it some new adventure, and every moment is just so fun. “Money doesn’t grow on trees,” as Jenny is (ironically) told twice, but when she is rudely awakened by this fact, the darker side of its financing does little to dissuade Jenny from reveling in her newfound lifestyle and companions.
“An Education” is a smoothly flowing adaptation of journalist Lynn Barber’s memoir of her teenage affair in 1960’s Britain. The biographical background of the story helps to create intriguing yet realistic characters, and Nick Hornby’s screenplay adds a certain humour and amiability to each of them. Although the film is dramatic, there is something very natural about it — one could imagine it unfolding in a more dazzling version of one’s own high school career, if one were to have the fortune of being surrounded by a group of immensely funny people and the occasional socialite. In essence, it seems entirely possible that each character might be the most interesting person you know, and it’s sheer luck that so many of them have amassed in this story.
Mulligan slips into the role of Jenny with a sprightly attitude and fresh complexion. Despite the substantial age difference between actress and character, Mulligan gives a realistic portrayal of the younger Jenny and does not come off as too mature for the role.
Alfred Molina plays a hilarious and ultimately endearing rendition of Jack, Jenny’s overbearing father. Determined to set her on the straitest path to adulthood, Jack allows little room for fun and games or gap years, or France, for that matter. Perhaps the most surprising part of the storyline is how easily he is wooed by David — it takes no time at all for him to succumb to David’s devious plans, and he willingly delivers his naïve daughter into this older man’s hands. Ultimately, he proves himself concerned most with ensuring Jenny’s success and wellbeing, and he believes that David will provide these things for her.
Rosamund Pike is a positive delight to watch as Helen, the beautiful and vapid girlfriend of David’s partner, Danny. At a classical concert, she rolls her eyes and looks as enthused as if she were attending her own funeral. When the topic of foreign languages comes up, she has her own advice to add, “Somebody told me that in about 50 years nobody will speak Latin, not even Latins.” Although this level of inanity seems too much like a caricature to maintain throughout the movie, Helen keeps hold of her ditsy-ness for its entirety without becoming absurd. The trick here seems to be that she doesn’t open her mouth for the important parts.
The characters comprise a huge part of the film’s appeal, but the most successful element of “An Education” might be the interplay between the serious and trivial that is mixed into every plot development. Without his humour, David would all too easily fall into the role of predator, and the misfortunes that befall Jenny would seem tragic and repulsive. At times, the plot seems completely comical, and at others, it is far from it. Hornby manipulates this boundary well and often intermixes the two. The result is something very humane. Hornby brings lightness to severe situations without trivializing the issues at hand, making “An Education” refreshingly easy to watch. The storyline, although not entirely difficult to predict, is interesting, and the vibrancy of characters and dialogue more than make up for any simplicity one might find in it. Definitely not a film to be missed.