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A great con man knows exactly what his targets want—and then makes them think they're getting it.
You might not at first think of David as a con man. He's warm, charming and seems unsure of himself as often as he takes charge. But make no mistake, he is a slick, crafty, conniving thirtysomething who's after one thing and one thing only: Jenny's virginity. To get it, he offers very different things to her and her parents, Jack and Marjorie.
All three are naively receptive to his charismatic roué fleece.
In 1960s England, 16-year-old Jenny desperately wants to ditch her tedious schoolgirl life, exchanging it for worldly sophistication—and lots of cigarettes! Her class-conscious parents want their intellectually gifted daughter to rise through the social ranks in ways they were never able to.
Attentive, wealthy and elegant David seems to satisfy both desires.
And so when Jenny meets him on the street one afternoon, destiny is determined. He revels in her sparkle and wide-eyed wonder. They (Jenny and her parents) are completely taken with his—seeming—concern for her safety and his ability to offer so many cultural and intellectual experiences.
For a while, the increasingly wordly-wise Jenny and her perpetually gullible parents (whether truly so or not) are happy with David's alluring erudition and glamour.
[Note: The following sections contain spoilers.]
Life lessons spring from An Education like roses from a flower garden. And the choice of roses for this simile is intentional since they come with thorns—and they're not learned until after Jenny has been used and discarded.
Most significant: We're taught that the choices we make, even (especially) when we're teenagers matter immensely. In fact, they can make or break your entire life.
Deceit is only comfortable around more deceit, and little fibs often belie big ones. That's a principle rammed home here by David and his friends. David's entire lifestyle is a lie, and he himself is a consummate liar—lying about knowing C.S. Lewis, lying to Jenny's parents about his sexual relationship with her, etc. And because she so craves David's revved up lifestyle, Jenny does her best to turn a blind eye. Only the blow of learning that he's married with a child causes her to rethink things. (Tragically, David's friends, though they claim to care about Jenny, never tell her that their friend is married, even after he and Jenny are engaged.)
More visible evidence of David's undesirability includes his realty dealings, in which he helps blacks move into white neighborhoods—so that older white women will hastily move out. This sets up David and his buddy Danny to buy the vacated flats on the cheap. The pair also has a habit of visiting homes that are for sale and stealing artwork.
Clearly, the people who surround you can break your life. But they can also make it. Jenny's teachers—gratingly at times, admittedly—do everything they can to push her in the right direction. Her brutally honest English teacher, Miss Stubbs, continually challenges her to shape up as her performance declines and she slips into David's shady world. Though stern and frank, Miss Stubbs is also kind and merciful, giving Jenny a second chance when the girl humbly apologizes for her hubris and hypocrisy.
The school's headmistress also confronts Jenny. And we'll mention here that Miss Stubbs refuses to accept an expensive gift Jenny purchases with David's money, saying that it would be betraying what she stands for: education, hard work and integrity.
Jenny's parents, on the other hand …
We'll put it like this: The entire film turns on four small words near its end. Jenny uses them to ask her mom and dad why they didn't protect her from herself and from David. "But what about you?" she cries. "Silly schoolgirls" get carried away with crushes and fall for older men all the time, she says. But you were supposed to know better. You had the wisdom that comes with age and experience to keep me safe.
Her parents are heartbroken. As are we as we watch. But nothing can be undone, and little can even be said. And so Jenny's folks, knowing they've failed, fail once more by not leading her out of the mess she's made. Dad blusters and pouts, but it's not he who gets her back into school and back on the right path. It's Jenny herself—now that she's been "educated"—who picks up the broken pieces of her life and begins gluing them back together. Hats off to her for that, to be sure. But the more subtle story here may be what we're supposed to learn from Jack and Marjorie's mistakes, not Jenny's. We're left feeling that they should have done more, done better, been smarter, been less afraid, been more involved. And because the movie makes us feel that, it does well in this regard.
Jenny eventually comes to find purpose and comfort in the "drab" world and people she once longed to escape. Hard work has value after all, and striving toward goals builds the character that enables one to truly enjoy luxuries and use them well. She also comes to see that the awkward teenage boys who have pursued her are sincere, caring and not nearly as undesirable as she'd once thought.
And there's one more thing: Jenny's taxing relationship with her teachers raises several points we've not yet unearthed. For most of the movie, Jenny's trapped in a mindset that tells her life should be about fun, not "boredom" and the hard work of learning and teaching. We know she's wrong when she says so. And her teachers know she's wrong, too. But they're not very good at talking it through with Jenny. Her headmistress mostly confines her comments to dour threats of expulsion and condescending disapproval. Miss Stubbs doesn't fare much better, even though she does try harder.
Knowing she's not being prodded emotionally or intellectually, Jenny drops this bomb on the headmistress: "It's not enough to educate us. You've got to tell us why you're doing it!" She goes on—impudently, but rightly—trying to convince her schoolmaster that it's an "argument worth rehearsing" since someone else may come along who also wants to know what it all means. Adding just a touch of spiritual connection to this scene, parts of 1 Peter 3:15 and 16 spring to mind: "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience."
Because David is Jewish, Jenny says they'll not marry in a church.
This Lolita-esque tale is based on a short memoir by British journalist Lynn Barber, who had a two-year affair with a man more than twice her age. Onscreen, Jenny tells David that she is a virgin and plans to stay that way—until she turns 17. He verbally agrees, but persists in playing around sexually, saying they can be romantic without going all the way. So they kiss and cuddle in bed, and—in an intimate scene that's quite uncomfortable—Jenny pulls down her camisole at his urging, revealing her breasts to him. (The camera shows her bare shoulders and part of her back.)
Jenny wants her first time to be special, saying it will be a once-in-a-lifetime event. David retorts, "Why will it happen only once?" His remark hints at two things that later become more apparent: 1) He's so sexually calloused he doesn't truly care about her virginity, and 2) He's bedded so many young girls he can scarcely tell them apart.
On the night before they do have sex, an explicit conversation David shares with Jenny involves him suggesting they start with a banana to make her first experience less uncomfortable. She's horrified by the notion of losing her "virginity to a piece of fruit."
The morning after, Jenny casually laments how uninspiring the sex was. (It's the only notification we get that she's given herself to him.)
Jenny and David's friend Helen is surprised that Jenny didn't sleep with David sooner, then says, "Good for you. You don't want to get preggers." Helen is seen wearing period lingerie. Women wear low-cut dresses or blouses. Schoolgirls joke about seeing penises and the physical pain involved in first-time sex.
Several adults ask Jenny if she's using birth control or is pregnant, including her mother, who turns a blind eye to her daughter's sexual enticements.
A pre-Raphaelite painting depicting a naked Adam and Eve at the Tree of Life is shown. Another nude painting adorns the apartment David and his friends share.
Crude or Profane Language
Two or three exclamations of "h‑‑‑." The British profanity "bugger" makes an appearance. God's name is sometimes misused. "Crikey" is blurted out, too.
Drug and Alcohol Content
In 1961 England, the air is smoky. David and his acquaintances, Jenny and her schoolgirl friends, and various others continually light up. Alcohol is also a staple, with Jenny's parents and various nightclubs and restaurants serving it. Jenny drinks. And David uses a bottle for Dutch courage.
Other Negative Elements
Jack and the headmistress both make anti-Semitic comments, the headmistress emphasizing the idea that the Jews "killed our Lord."
With a screenplay that develops enjoyable wit and deep insight, this Sundance Film Festival winner is an elegantly crafted picture.
We root for likeable Jenny to reconcile her struggle against adults' stern rules and the "freedom" she seeks in excitement and culture. And we wince as she learns the (very) hard way that the seeming drudgery of work reaps more desirable outcomes than David's ill-gotten glamour.
Lynn Barber says in her memoir, which the movie closely follows (excepting names, of course):
"What did I get from Simon? An education—the thing my parents always wanted me to have. … I learned about expensive restaurants and luxury hotels and foreign travel, I learned about antiques and Bergman films and classical music. … But actually there was a much bigger bonus than that. My experience with Simon entirely cured my craving for sophistication. By the time I got to Oxford, I wanted nothing more than to meet kind, decent, straightforward boys my own age, no matter if they were gauche or virgins. I would marry one eventually and stay married all my life and for that, I suppose, I have Simon to thank."
It's a true statement. But it's a frightening one.
An Education ultimately brings an impulsive, impatient schoolgirl back to her senses. But for a while, it indulges her explorations. Quoting Miss Stubbs, Jenny tells David, "Action is character. … I think it means if we never did anything we'd never be anybody." With that, she's justifying pleasure-seeking, intemperance, the high life she thinks she's found with him. She does learn the difference between being a character and developing a good one. But not being taught that difference by her parents, she's left to stumble upon it—as a teenager—by sleeping with a man twice her age.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Carey Mulligan as Jenny; Peter Sarsgaard as David; Alfred Molina as Jack; Cara Seymour as Marjorie; Olivia Williams as Miss Stubbs; Emma Thompson as The Headmistress; Dominic Cooper as Danny; Rosamund Pike as Helen
Lone Scherfig ( One Day)
Sony Pictures Classics
October 9, 2009
March 30, 2010
Meredith WhitmoreSteven Isaac