Jenny Mellor’s father (Alfred Molina) doesn’t believe in concerts. “He’d say there’s no point to them,” Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a schoolgirl in 1961 London, explains near the beginning of the 2009 Lone Scherfig-directed film An Education. “They’re just for fun — apart from school concerts, which are no fun at all, so we go to those. They don’t help you get on.” As far as he’s concerned, every aspect of his sixteen-year-old daughter’s life must serve a single great purpose: getting her into Oxford. Jenny herself also has her heart set on going there, but unlike him, she’s not interested in the purely material benefits of a university education. “If I go to university, I’m going to read what I want and listen to what I want, and I’m going to look at paintings and watch French films, and I’m going to talk to people who know lots about lots,” she says. While she dislikes the constant studying and having to play the cello in the youth orchestra (which demonstrates that she’s a “joiner-inner,” as her father expresses it), she’s willing to put up with such discipline for the sake of its promised rewards.
Everything changes one day when she gets caught in the rain on her way home from an orchestra rehearsal. As she stands on the sidewalk, a car pulls to a stop in front of her. “Look, if you had any sense, you wouldn’t take a lift from a strange man, but I’m a music lover and I’m worried about your cello, so what I propose is you put it in my car and walk alongside me,” says the driver (Peter Sarsgaard). Jenny is a bit wary at first, but as he seems kind, not to mention rather charming, she accepts his offer and eventually gets in the car herself. During the brief journey to her house, this sophisticated thirty-something stranger, David Goldman, more than manages to win her over, talking about music and taking a keen interest in her life.
What seems to be a pleasant but fleeting encounter soon turns into something much more significant. It starts on the night of Jenny’s orchestra concert, when she discovers an expensive flower arrangement from David sitting by her front door, wishing her good luck. Before long, he’s taking her to a Ravel concert and a glamorous nightclub, to an art auction, to Oxford for the weekend and even to Paris for her birthday. It’s the sort of life she’s always dreamed of; small wonder, then, that a university education and the work it entails look less and less appealing with each passing day.”I don’t know, these last few months I’ve eaten in wonderful restaurants and been to jazz clubs and watched wonderful films, heard beautiful music,” she tells her English teacher, Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams), who fears that her brightest pupil is throwing away her future. Miss Stubbs graduated from Cambridge, and Jenny can’t help but notice that her life, much of which is spent grading inane papers, seems a dreary one in spite of that. “Maybe all our lives are going to end up with pony essays or housework,” she continues. “And yes, maybe we’ll go to Oxford, but if we’re all going to die the moment we graduate, isn’t it what we do before that counts?”
It’s true enough that an academic life isn’t for everyone, and with Jenny’s sharp mind and curiosity about the world, she may well be able to succeed without a degree. Still, for all of her intelligence, her talk of Albert Camus and her giddiness over Pre-Raphaelite painters and the gratuitous French phrases that pepper her speech, she’s often as naive as any other middle-class teenager — provincial, even. She’s fascinated, for instance, when she sees David talking to a black family. Moreover, the notion that David might be interested in her body as well as her mind seems never to have occurred to her until his friend Helen (Rosamund Pike) brings it up. “Oh, you haven’t slept with him,” Helen says, clearly having assumed otherwise. She tells Jenny that that’s a good thing. “Really? Do you think so?” Jenny asks uneasily.
David, meanwhile, is only a graduate of “what I believe they call the university of life,” as he informs Jenny, but it serves his purposes quite well. He knows exactly how to get what he wants out of her, her parents and the world at large — by wheedling, by manipulating, by lying outright if need be. It’s only a matter of time before Jenny catches on to the less than savory elements of his character and his lifestyle but, true to form, he has little trouble dismissing her moral objections. All he has to do is accuse her of being bourgeois, flatter her intelligence and tell her that she’s welcome to return to her dull old life; she forgives him. His methods may be questionable at best, Jenny reasons, but at least he does more than just exist, unlike everyone else around her. “You have no idea how boring everything was before I met you,” she tells him. “Action is character, our English teacher says. I think it means that if we never did anything, we wouldn’t be anybody, and I never did anything before I met you. And sometimes I think no one’s ever done anything in this whole stupid country, apart from you.”
Oxford-bound or not, Jenny is going to receive an education — and one of its lessons is that every education comes at a price.
This post is part of The Back-to-School Blogathon, hosted by Pop Culture Reverie. Click the banner above to see all of the other great posts.