An Education (2009)

“If you never do anything, you never become anyone.”

…Oh my goodness.

I hadn’t seen An Education since it was released four years ago, and have seen many, many films since then, so for all intents and purposes, I was going in completely unaware upon a rewatch.

Jenny is 16, going on 17, still enough of a child to storm off and sit behind the couch with her birthday presents when she is not getting her way, but with the intelligence and vocabulary of a well read adult. Her world is textbooks and cello rehearsals, but never concerts, with Jane Eyre and a nervous schoolboy lone glimpses into romance, and French films and music her escape, a peek into adult life. Smart and expected to attend Oxford, she’s a girl that one would call ‘most likely to succeed’.

“If I go to university, I’m going to read what I want, and listen to what I want, and I’m going to look at paintings and watch French films and talk to people who know lots about lots.”

Until one day, when that line is spoken with such a glorious optimism and excitement that you can’t stop your heart from singing, that adult life she only sees on a screen comes rushing in with culture, gifts, and trips that she only could have dreamed of. Caught up in the absolute whirlwind of every fantasy she’s ever had, and no longer in the never-ending dreary routine of school, the affair moves very fast, changing her life, and everything she has ever worked for, of course coming off feeling “old, but not very wise”.

“I just said ‘it’s too expensive for me.'”
“No you didn’t, you said something completely different.”
“Well, I said it in French.”
“I don’t know.”

An Education is a film with an incredible atmosphere. It’s a film that is so exquisitely beautiful and wonderful, so overwhelmingly lovely that you feel as giddy, nervous, and excited as Jenny does, trying to be sophisticated by awkwardly speaking French for no reason.

With a less skilled writer, director, and cast, the charm would fail. It’s a story that would not work at all in a modern context. It would be gross, predatory, and end in a much worse way. But instead, despite the fact that this relationship is taken ‘all the way’, there is an overtone of innocence. Their first night in Oxford is so sweet (even though some parts of that scene made my skin crawl), the fact he respects her age and choices, and doesn’t push her to do anything she isn’t comfortable with. It constantly reminds us that these were simpler, much more conservative times, where girls were just expected to marry the first man they met and settle down, and (to quote Roger Ebert) that “this happens in 1961, when 16-year old girls were a great deal less knowing than they are now”, and that Jenny is a girl, not a woman, through and through, that these experiences are completely foreign to her. Lone Scherfig’s direction is so graceful, gentle and delicate, as much as Jenny, and Nick Hornby’s script captures every witty, intelligent thought and ‘lesson’ learnt by Jenny in such a beautiful fashion.

Of course, all of this would be for nothing if there wasn’t anabsolutely perfect actress playing Jenny, which Carey Mulligan definitely is. You can see her eyes light up with elation at every exciting experience, and then cloud over with anger at some of the film’s most heartbreaking moments. Mulligan makes you understand Jenny’s motivations, rooting for her, showing that she is smart and strong, regardless of how naive she is in letting herself be whisked away in a relationship that has absolutely no longevity and ruins all that she’s worked for. I wasn’t expecting to feel much sympathy for her and thought I’d want to slap her in the face and talk some sense into her, but I felt nothing of the sort. She just excels in the role (I love writing random things that pop into my head while I’m watching films at home, I literally wrote “CAREY MULLIGAN WINS” in my notebook). I wish she won Best Actress in 2010, it’s a true breakout, remarkable performance of a character that could have been annoyingly precocious and unlikable, instead I absolutely adore her.

There are certain films that one loves without reservation from the very first frame, and An Education is certainly one of those for me. Maybe it’s the fact that I am a girl around Jenny’s age, who has just finished high school and many of those conversations between her and her parents rang incredibly true (that part about cello being her ‘interest or hobby’ had me in stitches, I’ve certainly felt like she does in that moment before), or maybe it was the beautiful clothes that I now desperately want and the absolutely gorgeous colour scheme, or Carey Mulligan’s out-of-this-world charming presence, but An Education leapt off the screen and right into my heart. From the early excitement and sense of adventure of getting changed at school to go straight to an art auction, to the inevitable and emotional end (I looked at the time and realised that there was only 1/2 an hour left and wanted to cry), I adored every moment of the titular education that has occurred.

By the end, even though no physical transformation has taken place, and Jenny is still the bright eyed, intelligent, opinionated girl she was before this ride of a lifetime happened, it is evident that this journey of utter romanticism has left a lasting impression. As Jenny laments after an obviously passionate and anticipated night in Paris,

“It’s funny isn’t it? All that poetry and all those songs, about something that lasts no time at all”.

Rating: 5/5


An Education received a limited theatrical release in Australia in October 2009, after playing Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne Film Festivals, Carey Mulligan attending Brisbane and Melbourne

M (mature themes), 100 mins.


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