[Spoiler alert] On paper, the storyline to An Education sounds very trite. A pretty and smart 16 year old girl from the suburbs ditches school and the possibility of attending Oxford in order to marry an older, richer man who shows her the ways of the world…but who’s hiding a mysterious past.
That’s until you realise that the story is based on the memoirs of Sunday Times journalist Lynn Barber. And that lends the whole story a level of poignancy. You know that things are going to end badly between the schoolgirl and her seducer, but they actually seem to have genuine affection, even love, for each other and in a way they are a good match because they are both lost souls seeking to live extraordinary lives.
Sweet Audrey Hepburn lookalike Carey Mulligan portrays Jenny as a girl with a warm intelligence yet a fragile heart. Jenny’s not just a flibbertigibbet whose head is turned by the first sign of male attention, but a girl unsure of why she’s working so hard to follow a path which has been set by her conservative parents and the expectations of her teachers. David opens her eyes to a bright whirlwind world of fancy restaurants, art auctions and romantic Paris. Why shouldn’t life be fun all the time?
I found the character of David (Peter Sarsgaard) the most interesting. It would have been too easy to characterise him as a sleazy old man preying on a young mind. But I never found him to be creepy – despite his later-revealed adultery and his cowardly behaviour, I don’t think he ever treated Jenny as a plaything to be discarded callously. He relished Jenny’s wide-eyed appreciation of the world he was showing her, and I could understand how easy it would be to fall in love with the prospect of being part of someone’s life-changing experiences.
An Education is a sophisticated take on the Lolita story, set on the cusp of the Swinging Sixties in London and with a script of full of sparkling dialogue from author Nick Hornby. The film won the Audience Choice award and the Cinematography award at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.