An Education is set in Britain during the early 1960s. It begins with a 16-year old British girl (Jenny, played by Carey Mulligan) studying hard in order to pass her exams to get into Oxford. But she soon meets an older man (Daniel, played by Peter Sarsgaard) who introduces her to a new world of jazz, art, vacations to Paris, and general excitement.
1. This might be a period piece…but it might not be.
On one hand, the film takes place in the early 1960s, an era just before Britain moved from post-World War II austerity to the Swinging Sixties. Jenny’s parents are of the previous generation: her father is provincial and blustery (but only willing to stand up to his family members) and her mother fades into the background. Jenny starts the film wanting to go to Oxford but spends much of the film chasing a more exciting life. In a key scene involving Jenny and the headmistress of her private school, Jenny explains these differences: “It’s not enough to educate us anymore, Mrs. Walters. You’ve got to tell us why you’re doing it.” Without having a “why,” Jenny is unwilling to go on.
On the other hand, this movie is similar to numerous other stories that have simply taken place in other settings. Jenny is a typical middle-class girl and expects to go to college. She thinks she wants what her parents want, a good education. But all this changes as she “grows up” by interacting with the outside world. This is a classic “coming of age” tale as Jenny overcomes adult obstacles. Some of the characters are a little stale: the parents are typical suburban parents who fall apart when confronted with the complexities of the world.
2. I enjoyed the atmosphere of this film. I could feel the drudgery of the middle class home. I could see the excitement when Jenny went beyond the walls of her home and private school. Britain is shown as both dull and alive, as surely most places are.
3. There are a number of enjoyable short and sharp dialogues between Jenny and her parents.
4. Daniel is somewhat creepy, not quite of the Lolita variety but is still an older man chasing a teenager. We are never really told what motivates him or how he got to this position. Perhaps this is the case because Jenny is the main character and she never digs very deep into who Daniel is. Since Jenny just sees Daniel as a source of excitement, the audience doesn’t need to know much about Daniel either.
5. The overall question of the film is one that everyone can relate to: what kind of education are we seeking? One based in books, thinking, and analysis? One based in experiences? Or something else?
(The film was well-received by critics: on RottenTomatoes, 170 reviews with 159 fresh/94%.)