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An Education

Released 2009. Director: Lone Scherfig

MEN CAN BE SO CHARMING, AND 16-YEAR-OLD GIRLS CAN BE SO TRUSTING. The time is 1960s London. Jenny is a bright, beautiful, confident young girl preparing to enter Oxford University. Along comes David, suave, smooth-talking, rich, good looking and twice her age, who quite literally sweeps Jenny off her feet one rainy afternoon. The stage is set for a lesson even Oxford couldn’t teach so effectively.

Adapted from Lynn Barber’s memoirs and adapted by Nick Hornby, a novelist with a pronounced self-deprecating humour, An Education is pitched at a perfect tone. Directed by Norwegian Lone Scherfig, An Education is not sentimental or bitter (oh dear, young girl’s heart is broken, her bright future in tatters after discovering the man she wants to marry hasn’t been entirely honest with her). Neither is it comical and fluffy (oh dear, what a generous and charming cad, lavishing all those gifts and a trip to Paris, what an impish and perky girl who picks herself up, dusts off her bad decision and moves on with a smile).

Instead, the story takes on an impressive balance of lightness and thoughtfulness. Scherfig and Hornby have wisely adopted a non-judgemental approach towards the love affair. Jenny is never reduced to an object of condescension. What we have here are two people walking into a questionable relationship with eyes wide open. Jenny is a smart girl. Surely she knows there’s something unsavoury about David’s character even before she finds out about his shady dealings and dishonest behaviour.

But wait, he is so cultured, so mature, so worldly, so unlike the boys at school who are one rung lower on Jenny’s evolutionary ladder. And yes, David also seduces her with music, art and French words. A smart girl can be wilfully blind to what she chooses not to see. Does David set out from the beginning to snare a beautiful virgin, or does he have genuine feelings for Jenny knowing that legally it’s a dead end? We can debate endlessly about David’s original intentions but what is clear is their mutual attraction to each other, growing deeper despite their own intelligence and common sense.

Another interesting aspect worth thinking about is the attitude of Jenny’s parents. Her father, played by Alfred Molina in a dominating yet congenial manner, wants only for Jenny to enrol at Oxford at all costs. But when David shows up with a potential of providing Jenny with a comfortable life, he’s prepared to shrug off his daughter’s higher education.

Does a woman pursue knowledge for self-enrichment or a means to a comfotable life, and are the two mutually exclusive? Is a well-heeled man a substitute for education?

Carey Mulligan is an absolute revelation in her winsome role as Jenny. Disarming and completely at ease in her character, Carey radiates star quality, almost like a young Audrey Hepburn at times. This is the sort of talent that should be adorning more movie posters and gracing award ceremonies.

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