An Education is both a very scary and ultimately very satisfying movie. Any film that balances tension in such an evocative way deserves attention and this one more than most. Fortunately, it got it in the form of three Academy Award nominations in 2010, for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actress.
It takes place in 1961 in London, where sixteen year old Jenny Mellor (Carey Mulligan) labors in a private school. Her middle-class parents Jack (Alfred Molina) and Marjorie (Cara Seymour) have scrimped and saved for years so that she can get a proper education and go to Oxford, but Jenny is bored with her life and questions whether the effort is worth it. She has reached the conclusion that once you graduate college, something inside you dies and she wants to experience life before that happens.
While waiting in the rain for a bus, a car pulls up to the curb. A dashing older man, David Goldman (Peter Sarsgaard), offers to give her cello a ride and she eventually climbs in with it. This is the beginning of an elaborate seduction. He offers to take her to a concert and then charmingly talks her parents into allowing her. Jack and Marjorie are extremely impressed with this rich man and are complicit in his seduction. But David is lying about his “Aunt Helen” being a chaperone. He introduces her to his friend and business associate Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Danny’s girlfriend Helen (Rosamund Pike). After the concert, they go to a jazz club and Jenny begins to see another side of life. She finds it exciting and different and she wants more. David cons Jenny’s parents into letting her go to Oxford with him for a weekend under the pretense of meeting his old teacher, C. S. Lewis, and they readily agree. He buys a copy of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe fakes Lewis’ signature and the quartet set out to party.
Although Jenny shares a bed with David, she tells him that she will not give up her virginity until she is seventeen and he contents himself with a peek at her breasts. Over the weekend, they are driving through the country and see a house for sale. David and Danny park and walk toward the entrance, but when Jenny makes to go with them Danny sternly tells her she has to stay with Helen. As they wait, Helen tells her to be ready to leave in a hurry and after a while, David and Danny sprint from the house carrying an old map that they have stolen. They quickly drive away and back at the hotel, Jenny takes off, telling them she can find her own way home. David follows her and smooth-talks her into staying.
By this point, he is lavishing money on her, buying her clothes and taking her to expensive restaurants. It is a glimpse of the rich life for which she’s acquiring a definite taste. For her seventeenth birthday, David takes her Paris. He tells her parents that Aunt Helen will again chaperone, but this time it is just the two of them. She is enthralled and gives up her virginity on the trip. Back in London, the four of them go the dog races and then party in the club afterward, but when David sees Jenny and Danny flirting as they dance, he panics. In the parking lot afterward, he asks Jenny to marry him.
I won’t give away the rest of the story.
The direction by Lone Scherfig is outstanding. One might think this is a fairly long film at one hour and fifty minutes, but it really flies by. When I looked at the Special Features on the DVD and saw the deleted scenes, I realized that it could have been longer and not suffered at all, but the cuts were very judicious. There is also an alternate ending that viewers might find interesting. The script by Nick Hornby is based on a memoir of the same name by British journalist Lynn Barber and it is terrific, as befit its nomination.
The acting is uniformly good, but Mulligan, an amateur when she came into the production, is wonderful and makes the film believable beginning to end. Getting a nomination on your first ever acting job is simply spectacular. Although her character really makes the film work, all of the supporting performances are great, especially the always brilliant Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour. American Sarsgaard holds up well against his British counterparts in the movie and Emma Thompson even makes an appearance as the Headmistress of the girls school. Everyone is terrific.
The art direction is also wonderful, as 1961 London is perfectly created, not a blemish in sight and everything chosen perfectly.
It’s not an easy to movie to like, but Jenny muddles her way through the mess and comes out on the other side no worse for wear. She certainly gets the worldly education she sought and is an adult by the time she begins Oxford with “boys.” This is a film with many adult situations, so I do not recommend it for children under thirteen, but there is no nudity or sexually graphic situations, so it isn’t strictly adults only. In fact, I would recommend this movie to teenagers as there is a lot to learn from Jenny’s experience. Ultimately, it is an extremely good movie that deserves its due. I highly recommend it.