The key object in An Education, a peculiar but stifled new English film based on a memoir by Lynn Barber with a screenplay by Nick Hornby, is a glove compartment. The glove compartment is in the car belonging to David (Peter Sarsgaard), which itself may have been stolen, considering that he is a professional thief. He has seduced—or almost seduced—a sixteen year old girl named Jenny (newcomer Carey Mulligan). It is London in 1961. Jenny is a schoolgirl at a London prep school where she plays the cello and dreams of getting in to Oxford. Her schoolteacher (Olivia Williams) has warned her about the difficulty of being accepted in to such a prestigious university, and Jenny’s parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) mainly seem to care about whether or not it will whisk Jenny away to a respectable future—and whether or not they can afford it. When Jenny meets David, she finds an affluent man who, if almost twice her age, will take her to Paris, to Oxford to meet C.S Lewis, and will buy her whatever she wants. Even when she finds out how he makes his money— by stealing various collectibles and selling them, and by renting out illegally acquired property—she decides to turn the other cheek. But there is always the question of the glove compartment; first, Jenny finds cigarettes inside, and promptly takes up smoking. And there are other prompts inside.
An Education is, in the most intentional way possible, a British School Film. Its place must therefore lie, quite awkwardly, amongst past British School Art. Generally, the Brits don’t like school too much. As early as Roald Dahl’s story “Galloping Foxley”, the horrors of boarding school were disclosed in great detail. Lindsay Anderson declared that the headmasters should be shot down in student revolt in If… Pink Floyd made an ensemble of children tell us that they didn’t need no education. The Harry Potter series, most recently, have been books based on the childlike conceit that school, or even all childhood, should just be like that. An Education stands as the conservative counterpart to all that noise. It’s message is that one should get educated; not just in life, but in the traditional sense, doing homework, applying oneself, getting in to good universities. This is a good way to spend your youth. And no, it won’t turn you in to a total bore.
No viewer is going to believe that Jenny—this spunkily pretty, intelligent girl—is going to become a bore. If anything, it is the one’s who have not gotten any education who are ignorant bores; David’s friends and partners in crime, Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike), for instance. But the film’s parental stance might be easier to take if it didn’t also lack a certain degree of horror and confusion that artists such as Anderson and Dahl knew should be present in stories involving growing up and mistakes. The central situation in An Education is one of sheer perversity. Here is a con-man (and we, the audience, know it from the start), who romantically desires a much younger girl, and society is not just okay with this, it is enabling it. All Jenny’s parents want their daughter to do is to find someone else to take care of her. Her friends don’t think it’s remotely strange that she loves an older man, they think it’s terrific. Her headmistress appears to take the position that Jenny is just a foolish girl, and a lost cause. The film doesn’t take these attitudes as perverse and confused, it looks at them as charming misconceptions of a bygone era. It makes them beside the point with Jenny’s ridiculous affectations and the question of her virginity. Only Jenny’s teacher tries to let her know what she is getting herself in to. But once she helps Jenny come to her senses, we are faced with an unrealistic solution to the horror and confusion that were never there; maturity can come about through studying and achievement and reconciliation can make all ends meet.
It seems that if there were any film that should question societal morality, even if of a specific time period, An Education is it. But director Lone Scherfig stifles any serious questioning, preferring to tell a story about a cute, wayward girl, who makes a mistake, gets out of it, and makes some societal observations along the way. Carey Mulligan has created an odd and believable character, as has Sarsgaard, yet the direction did not do them justice. Scherfig has a talent of crafting pure situations; he knows that the glove compartment is pivotal and that what’s inside has to be key. He doesn’t know what to make of the world outside of the car.