May I have a look? Just a peek?
— David (Peter Sarsgaard)
“There’s no point in them, concerts. I don’t believe in them.” Sixteen-year-old Jenny (Carey Mulligan) expects this sort of response from her father, Jack (Alfred Molina). Still, she hopes she’ll convince him to let her go this time. Or more precisely, she hopes that her potential date, David (Peter Sarsgaard), will convince him. And so she watches with barely contained excitement and not a little curiosity as the men debate. “They won’t help you get a job,” pronounces Jack. “Which of course is precisely what’s so wonderful about them,” David observes. Jenny smiles. It’s clear at that moment who has won.
As An Education begins in London, 1961, Jenny is weary of her classes at an all-girls prep school. Her terrific grades and dedication thus far mean she’s a candidate for Oxford, where she plans to read English. Jack and her mother, Marjorie (Cara Seymour in yet another remarkably nuanced and generous performance), imagine this future will be good, a way out of their own working class world and into one that includes intelligent conversation and material success. To this end, she must become what Jack calls a “joiner-inner,” and not a rebel.
Jenny, who spends long afternoons in her bedroom singing along with Juliette Gréco records, imagines another end. As the camera hovers over her face, so wide open, she dreams of being someone else. Once she meets David, a self-identified “music lover” and Jew who gives her and her cello a ride home in the rain, Jenny thinks he’ll be her ticket out. Being 16, she doesn’t quite see the irony of her choice, that what David offers is as traditional and fusty as can be. Instead, she’s pleased when he seduces her parents, who let her go with him to the concert. She’s even more pleased when he takes her to fine café afterwards, where she can smoke cigarettes and drop French phrases. It helps too that this part of the evening must remain a secret from her parents.
Lying is key to Jenny’s education. It’s not that she sets out to deceive, or even that she much likes it. Still, as Lone Scherfig’s movie makes delicately clear, the girl is soon convinced that her and David’s shared sensibility is premised on their superiority. Presenting her to his friends Helen (Rosamund Pike) and Danny (Dominic Cooper), he asks, “Isn’t it wonderful to find a young person who wants to know things?” While the multiple meanings of “know” hang in the air, David continues. “There’s so much I want you to see!” The camera swings over to Danny, who rolls his eyes, granting you another perspective. Even as Jenny swoons, you’re quite aware that what she’s seeing isn’t precisely what’s there.
That’s not to say that her most visible alternatives to David seems alluring. Marjorie repeatedly follows her husband’s lead and Jenny’s favorite teacher at school, Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams), is devoted to her students but sensually repressed: with her hair tied back and her glasses perched on her nose, the significantly named Miss Stubbs cautions Jenny against missing assignments and traveling to racetracks or Paris with her new boyfriend. Jenny can’t see the harm in such adventures, even when she does see that David’s livelihood isn’t precisely legal. She’s slightly more concerned when she also sees that he has a short temper regarding her own desires, that he’d sooner cut her off than assume her needs as valid. But when he manages to make his flare-up seem accidental, and not manipulative per se, Jenny prefers to maintain the fantasy that the pleasures he offers are worth a few bumps in the road.
If the story of Jenny’s inevitably hard lesson is standard, the movie comes up with a few moments that give pause. Waiting in the car, she sees her new man speak earnestly with a black family before he leads them inside an apartment building. Watching through the car window, she spots someone in an upstairs window, multiple frames and limits on what might be seen or known. “How do you know those Negro people?” she asks on his return. “Schwarzes have to live somewhere,” he answers casually, by way of explaining his prejudice as well as his own stereotypical exploitation of real estate. The movie doesn’t explore the problem beyond this superficial display, which stands again as a brief instance of Jenny’s willful blindness (or her genuine naïvete), framed by another view.
In this case that other view is yours alone, as opposed to another character’s, which means you’re expected to bring context and a sense of umbrage to the scene. Jenny has no apparent comprehension, no way to gauge David’s offensiveness, here or elsewhere. If nothing else, it’s a pointed indictment of that prep school education her father and David so esteem. Not to mention her own ability to frame what she sees and select her own education.