The dilemma at the center of Lone Scherfig’s British coming-of-age drama, An Education (2009), is quite simple. Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is an attractive, incredibly smart, and witty 16-year-old growing up in a drab suburb of London in 1961. Judging from the lifestyles of the female role models around her, her future can be narrowed down to two options: housewife or schoolmarm. In order to meet the requirements of one of those employment opportunities, Jenny’s caring but overly concerned parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) and school teacher (Olivia Williams) forcefully suggest an education at Oxford. In order to market herself as a valuable candidate, Jenny must ace English, Latin, French (hence the title), and show cultural breadth (her “hobby” is the cello). Yet, if all goes according to plan, Jenny will meet a similarly cultured wealthy man and will no longer need to do any of those things. The irony, of course, is that an Oxford education is simply a means of making the bait more alluring. Jenny comes to this realization early into Scherfig’s film and asks the question “Why must I attend Oxford when I could easily take a shortcut and reach the same inevitable conclusion by attending the school of life? I’d have a lot more fun.”
And fun, indeed, is what Jenny has. En route home after symphony practice on a rainy day, she meets a man named David (Peter Sarsgaard). David is not only twice Jenny’s age but is also cultured, financially endowed, charming, and witty, thus inspiring in Jenny the desire and the means to slightly cheat the game of life by passing “GO,” collecting two hundred quid, and finding herself at the former of two options: a housewife, but a wealthy and cultured one at that. David and Jenny go to concerts together, enjoy beautiful dinners at jazz clubs with their friends Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike), and vacation in Paris. As time progresses, Jenny becomes the object of envy of her classmates and represents the freedom that her mother, school teacher, and school administrator (Emma Thompson) repressed when they once rolled the dice. Not long into their relationship, David proposes to Jenny and her deliberate subversion of the conservative order that an education at Oxford represents seems to have been dealt its coup de grace.
However, both David and An Education are ultimately not what they appear to be. Throughout the film, Scherfig and screenwriter Nick Hornby (author of High Fidelity and About a Boy, who is adapting a memoir by British journalist Lynn Barber here) give us ample clues that David is not really the type of person he presents himself as. Where does his wealth come from? While his ability to use his charm to smooth talk Jenny and her parents is incredibly powerful, everything in the plot, form, and direction of the film (Sarsgaard’s performance in particular) disables David’s superpower when it comes to winning over the audience. We want to like him, but we don’t trust him and, in the end, we’re right not to.
This said, the film and David have one key characteristic in common: they are both dishonest. Coming out of An Education, I felt the same way about the film as I did about David. I wanted to like it, I wanted to fall under its charm, but there’s something rather slippery and off-putting about its ultimate message. While I will be quick to admit that the film is to be praised for the performances of Molina, Sarsgaard, and particularly newcomer Carey Mulligan, whose face and personality are this film’s raison d’être, I found the ideology represented by the characters and events portrayed rather troubling. The film critiques the conservative lifestyle of an Oxford education for the bulk of its running length, favoring world experience and seizing the day as the correct and more fulfilling alternative. Yet, at the end of the film, we’re left with the impression that while seizing the day makes you rich and fulfilled, you’re ultimately an immoral fraud, poser, and a coward. The school of life is a shortcut viewed with contempt. Thus, Jenny loses a turn, does not pass “GO,” does not collect two hundred quid, and finds out all along that the established social order of conformity was, in fact, the only correct path.
Even from the perspective of a man who has spent nearly eight years in a university lecture hall and who deeply treasures the education of the film’s title, this ideological conclusion made me uncomfortable. Surely, there is much to be learned in life that does not involve French, Latin, and deciphering Geoffrey Chaucer, and the bulk of those learning exercises do not render the subject dishonest or morally crippled. While the film offers up the briefest hint that Jenny is perhaps more seasoned and less näive about the workings of the world after her brief stroll on the road less taken, the film’s final scenes seem to cast aside that sentiment completely by repressing David and the lifestyle he represented. While this provides with an ending that is a happy one, the moves taken to get there feel dishonest and ideologically suspect.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.