You’ve heard the story before. Young, bright-eyed schoolgirl falls head-over-heels for the handsome, smooth-talking older man. From the get-go, there can only be two endings: the fairy-tale ending of couples such as Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester or Emma and Mr. Knightly who live happily ever after, or the moralistic story of the ruined woman who has been tricked by false promises.
Thankfully, An Education, a film based on the memoir of Lynn Barber with a script written by Nick Hornby, surmounts these predictable pitfalls as the heroine Jenny Mellor (Carey Mulligan) develops her own coming-of-age story. Jenny is a precocious, pretty 16-year-old virgin living with her conservative parents in 1960s English suburbia. She is a star pupil and dreams of studying English at Oxford, hoping that the university experience will liberate her from the monotony of daily life.
Then, one rainy day, she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard). David is the antithesis of the archetypal young knight in shining armor that schoolgirls dream of. A handsome and wealthy man more than twice Jenny’s age, he even drives a “bad boy” expensive foreign car. Waiting in the rain with her cello after orchestra practice, Jenny is surprised when David, a classical music enthusiast, pulls over his car and offers her cello a ride home. He lets Jenny walk outside the car because, as he says, jumping into a stranger’s car would be dangerous. And so the romance begins.
As the movie progresses, David enchants even Jenny’s conservative parents, who become wrapped up in his sophistication and gifts. He convinces her parents to let her come with him to music concerts, fancy restaurants, weekend trips and a trip to Paris. David sucks her into a world of jazz clubs, upscale restaurants, racetracks and bars. He comes to symbolize not only an ideal lover, but also a ticket out of the mundane life of her parents. She is so mesmerized by the glittering world and David’s charming smile that when the unsavory parts of David’s life start to crop up, she turns a blind eye.
The elephant in the room throughout the film is that David is a 30-some-year-old man interested in a 16-year-old girl. While Jenny’s parents give their compliance in the form of feigned ignorance, the viewer is faced with the morality question present in Jenny and David’s relationship. There are times when David’s predatory gaze on Jenny has an uncomfortable intensity. Though Jenny herself may not be able to see it, the viewer catches onto the practiced way in which David seduces her.
The plot has its twists and turns, but the real strength of the movie lies in the cast. Though a relative newcomer, Mulligan delivers an incredible performance. She artfully prevents Jenny from falling into the trite “good girl” stereotype. Ordinary quirks, such as singing aloud to popular French songs in her room while her father shouts, “French music isn’t on the syllabus!” from below, bring Mulligan’s character to life. Neither the frowns of society nor her disapproving headmistress (Emma Thompson) are capable of stopping her from smoking expensive cigarettes, flirting with a man twice her age, or savoring the pleasures of high society he offers to her. “You down a beer and bang the glass back on the table,” David tells her. “It’s wonderful.”
Beneath the façade of worldliness, which Jenny quickly dons with her casual French expressions and taste for fine cigarettes, there are moments where the mask slips, exposing just how young and vulnerable she is, despite her apparent loss of innocence. When she contemplates making her relationship with David sexual, she tells him clearly: “I want you to treat me like a grown-up.”
What sets this story apart from others is that it draws no clear moral lines. It neither victimizes Jenny, nor condemns her. It is a wonderful repackaging of a coming-of-age story in which growing up is never easy.