Jenny’s life is a fairly dull routine of nagging from parents, homework, playing the cello, and English class, when one day a handsome stranger drops in her lap: played by Peter Sarsgaard, David is a suave, Jewish real estate mogul with an answer for everything and a way with enticing people. He manages to entice both Jenny and her parents: first, to let her accompany him to a concert in London (where she meets his friends and confidants, Danny and Helen); later, to a weekend at Oxford (ostensibly to meet CS Lewis, although David knows no such person – and likely never went to Oxford either) – eventually, David sprites Jenny off to a weekend in Paris, all under the rubric of giving the girl a proper worldly education. Naturally, such an education involves both the ways of the flesh as well as, well, the usual: art, wine, classical music, dog races, sports cars, sarcastic banter, and casual thievery.
Everyone falls for David, it seems, except the dour women who work at Jenny’s school, who are charged with maintaining the moral standards that will produce proper English women: Jenny’s English teacher, a Cambridge girl herself, who’s set her hopes on Jenny, as well as her headmistress, played with sturdy severity by Emma Thomson, who believes that rakes like David are on earth for one purpose only: to lead girls of dubious morals like Jenny down the road to inevitable damnation and ruin.
Films of quiet coming-of-age like this live and die by the characters and dialogue, and this is what makes An Education such a treasure. Carey Mulligan, who plays Jenny (keep an eye out for her in the upcoming Wall Street 2), imbues the character with the rare combination of charm, naiveté, and fashionable wit that all works quite well to enthrall us with the young girl. Jenny is such a bright and beautiful thing that we are endlessly fascinated watching her interact with her friends, her parents, and her ostensible fiancé and his friends. She never misses just the right observation and has the appropriate thirst for life. The movie purportedly is about the charms of David, but it’s Jenny who charms the audience and carries us through the film.
The rest of the cast is also quite marvelous – including Alfred Molina as Jenny’s father, a bit of a hard-case shut in who cares terribly for his daughter but has trouble finding the right way to show it; Emma Thomson, of course, in that star turn as headmistress: she sees all too clearly where Jenny is headed, and has little sympathy for the girl. But Rosamund Pike, who plays a supporting role as the girlfriend of David’s friend Danny, is also equally essential in this film (you may remember her as the icy double agent Miranda Frost in Die Another Day). She’s Jenny’s foil – a woman who’s thoroughly followed these rogues down the garden path – and her lack of education and sardonic attitude is quite perfect. She brings a million beautiful different bemused expressions, always giving us just the right delicious punctuation to the points of life that Jenny is learning.
My only quibble with the movie is that the ending to which Jenny and David is headed seems to me, well, a bit too pat: the lesson Jenny learns from David is really rather thorough, and all a bit too neatly tied up. One might argue, as well, that the film’s essentially conservative message – that good girls don’t mess around and instead save themselves for Oxford – feels, as well, a little bit one-sided. Clearly, Jenny’s generation is on the verge of an entire revolution, and in a few short years, Jenny’s London would become Swinging London of lore, and her merry band of rogues would in fact seem a bit quaint.
But this is 1961, and the movie does capture that time of transition well – as it does Jenny’s youth. Jenny, like many of us, has her first encounter with someone who has the power to completely determine the future course of her entire life. That encounter is always a powerful lesson, and a key moment of any young person’s life that the movie captures with care and feeling. The scene when Jenny’s father talks to her through the door – admitting that he knew all along that David was lying about CS Lewis, but that he trusted his daughter more – is staged perfectly, and played with just the right insight and drama. If it does nothing else, the enjoyable film reminds us of how much even the smartest teenager has to learn.