An Education

Released: 2009
Cast:  Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Rosamund Pike, Dominic Cooper, Olivia Williams, Emma Thompson
Oscar Nominations:  Best Picture, Best Actress (Carey Mulligan), Best Adapted Screenplay (Nick Hornby)
SUMMARY:  In 1961, 16-year-old Jenny Mellor (Carey Mulligan) lives with her parents Jack (Alfred Molina) and Marjorie in Twickenham, Middlesex, and attends a prestigious all-girls school.  Most of Jenny’s time is occupied with schoolwork, as she is trying to get a scholarship to Oxford.  One day while waiting in the rain for her bus, a man in a sports car offers Jenny a ride.  The man, David (Peter Sarsgaard), is 35, but shares Jenny’s interest in classical music.  Several days later, Jenny again runs into David, and he asks her to go to a concert with him.  Jenny is sure that her parents will not agree, but to her surprise, David manages to convince them.  At the concert, she meets his friends Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike); after the performance, all four go out to eat.  Jenny returns home and tells her mother that it was the best night of her life.  When they learn of Jenny’s quest to attend Oxford, the group invites her to come with them on an overnight trip there.  This time, Jenny is positive that her parents will not allow her to go.  However, once again David works his magic and convinces them that the trip will be beneficial for Jenny’s future, as he will introduce her to some faculty at Oxford.  Jenny is shocked when they agree and even more shocked to learn that she and David will be sharing a room.  On the first night, she tells David that she is a virgin, and intends to stay that way until her 17th birthday; David agrees to respect her wishes.  The next day, the whole group visits a house where an elderly woman lives.  Jenny tries to go in with David and Danny, but is brusquely told to stay in the car with Helen.  When David and Danny come out, they quickly get into the car and drive away.  Jenny is stunned to realize that they have stolen an old map from the house.  She decides to go home early, but David tells her that the woman did not know what she had, and was therefore incapable of appreciating it.  Jenny learns that this is how he and Danny make their money; they also move black people into buildings with elderly women who are afraid of them, then buy their apartments on the cheap.  Despite her misgivings, Jenny decides that she would rather stay with David and enjoy the finer things of life rather than return to her boring life.
Jenny’s romance with David is the talk of the school, and things only escalate when he asks her to go to Paris with him for her birthday.  Both her English teacher (Olivia Williams) and principal (Emma Thompson) warn her to be careful:  the English teacher, Ms. Stubbs, explicitly asks her not to go.  This time, David also asks her parents to go along, and they agree.  In Paris, David and Jenny again share a room, and Jenny sleeps with David.  Not long after they return, David proposes, and Jenny accepts.  The school explodes in excitement, with the exception of the teacher and the principal.  In the principal’s office, Jenny gets a lecture about the importance of getting an education, boring though it may be.  She responds by saying that she is tired of being bored, and does not want to spend the rest of her life being bored, as she imagines her teachers to be.  She then leaves school.  Jenny is surprised (and a little disappointed) to find that her parents, particularly her father, do not object to the engagement, as they were so adamant about getting into Oxford.  One evening, David takes the entire family out for a fancy dinner.  However, when they stop at a gas station, Jenny finds several letters in the glove box:  all of the letters are addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. David Goldman.”  She demands to be taken home.  Outside the house, David tells her that he is married, but is not happy, and will get a divorce for her.  Jenny seems to consider this, but demands that he come into the house and tell her parents himself.  She goes inside to wait, while David opens a bottle of (probably stolen) wine to fortify himself.  Several minutes later, he drives away without ever coming inside.  Jenny suddenly finds herself with an uncertain future, as she dropped out of school before taking her exams.  She goes by David’s house and meets his wife and young son.  Mrs. Goldman tells her that David has done this several times, even getting several other women pregnant.  Jenny tries to get back into school, saying that she has realized the importance of having a degree, but the principal refuses.  In desperation, Jenny visits Ms. Stubbs at home and asks for her help.  Ms. Stubbs is thrilled that Jenny has changed her mind, and willingly agrees to help.  Jenny begins to work and study constantly, but the effort pays off:  she is accepted to Oxford for the next term.
MY TAKE:  I was a little leery of this movie, as it seemed to be to be all about an illicit sexual relationship between an underage girl and a much older man.  However, this is really a minor part of the story, which turned out to be a lot more entertaining than I expected.  Jenny is not seduced by David so much as his way of life and the things he offers her, like fancy clothes, nightclubs and trips to Paris.  When she learns that he’s basically a con man, she freaks out temporarily, but ultimately is too caught up in the excitement of her life with him.  Obviously, it is a lot more glamorous and fun than studying all the time for a scholarship, and Jenny’s argument about the point of getting a degree does make some sense.  School is hard and boring, and she thinks teaching is hard and boring, so why put in the effort, if you’re only going to be bored your whole life?  It’s hard to argue with that.  In today’s world, we know that it’s hard to get a good job without an education and a college degree, but in England in 1961, that wasn’t as true.  Anyway, she’s got David, who obviously makes enough money to support them both in style (albeit illegally).  However, she doesn’t end up with David, and the catch is that in order to have the life she wants, Jenny actually does need a degree:  she’s not content to become a secretary or something, and never get out into the world.  That’s why I found the title so interesting:  it represents different things at different points of the movie.  At the beginning, Jenny is getting a traditional education without appreciating it:  she does things because they will look good on her application, rather than because she wants to do them.  When she gets together with David, she begins to get an education about the world; when they break up, she gets an education about people and their weaknesses.  Finally, she gets a school education, but through self-motivation and tutoring, rather than school.  At the end, she comes out a much wiser person, even though she’s not much older than when the film started.  Not all of this wisdom is happy, as she’s obviously learned that there are dishonest and manipulative people out there.  However, the situation did help her to figure out what she wanted for herself.  I think the thing that shocked me the most about the whole situation was Jenny’s parents.  Her father starts out as a sort of blowhard:  he is always on Jenny about schoolwork and getting into Oxford, and is incredibly skeptical of the world and the people in it.  However, he completely falls for David’s charms, and starts to do things that really aren’t very smart.  He basically lets Jenny do whatever she wants with him, believing that David is completely upstanding.  To me, that’s just dumb:  he knows that David is interested in Jenny romantically, and that should be the first sign:  David’s almost twenty years older than Jenny.  Maybe that was more common then, but in today’s world, it’s a little creepy, especially when Jenny is a minor (for that matter, it’s also illegal).  Does he honestly believe that when they go on the overnight trips, Jenny is going to stay with David’s friends or in a dorm or something?  Maybe I’m just a pessimist, but that seems really gullible.  Thankfully, Jenny takes pretty good care of herself.  I was disappointed that she stayed with David after figuring out he was a con man, but sixteen-year-olds aren’t known for their good judgment, and life with David was clearly a lot more fun than the drudgery of school.  I was extremely glad she decide to go to Oxford after all, though.
RATING:  Pretty good.
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