In Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” the titular king, frustrated by his diminishing power and duplicitous daughters, cries, “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” Lear is confused about his identity and unsure of his judgment, and seeks external validation as a way to redefine himself amidst his struggles.
In An Education, directed by Lone Scherfig, and based on a memoir by the British journalist Lynn Barber, this line from Lear is read aloud not by an aging king but by a schoolgirl in a literature class. As her classmate finishes the line, Jenny (Carey Mulligan) eagerly raises here hand, as if she were being asked to provide an answer for Lear's question, which, for much of the film, also seems to be her own.
A bright sixteen-year-old who loves English literature and French culture, Jenny feels trapped in her small, early-1960s English town. Things close to home bore her—her parents and teachers in particular, as they seem removed from the sophisticated culture for which she longs.
Jenny dreams of studying at Oxford and spending time with “people who know lots about lots.” She longs for someone outside of herself, outside the world she knows, to help shape her identity, to separate her from those who have settled for small-town life. When she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), a man about twice her age, she believes she has found her answer. David introduces Jenny to the things she's longed for—symphonies, sophistication, Paris—but, until now, has only experienced through paler versions like school orchestras and Juliette Grecco albums.
Throughout the film, Mulligan’s wardrobe is so elegant, her hair so perfectly set, and her performance so effortless, that she almost makes the viewer believe that the new life she is creating for herself is possible. Mulligan’s ability to convey both innocence and a surprising maturity is also key to the story’s credibility. She seems as confident in her performance as her character is confused.
David, despite viewers’ suspicions about his intentions, also proves likable in many scenes. He is a gifted conversationalist with a dry wit (kudos to screenwriter Nick Hornby), and it’s not hard to see why Jenny is drawn in by his worldliness, his charm and his sports car. Still, as the film progresses it becomes difficult to believe that Jenny would willingly continue her relationship with David. Her small-town boredom is understandable, but she is more independent, capable and cultured than most girls at her school and even her own parents, and life with David becomes anything but an escape.
Jenny’s parents’ enthusiasm for the pairing also would seem implausible if not for the era in which the film takes place. They want nothing more than for their daughter to be cared for, and in 1960s England David seems a safer bet than an Oxford University education. The viewer is left exasperated as Jenny’s parents grant David’s every request, even as he gradually takes on the qualities of an overgrown and more malicious Eddie Haskell.
Jenny’s father, Jack (Alfred Molina), is fearful that he will be unable to fulfill the needs of his family, and wants to save his daughter from that anxiety. Yet his attempts to direct her life and her studies, while overbearing, provide much of the film’s levity. By contrast, Graham, a classmate of Jenny’s, is considering taking a “gap year” in order to travel before pursuing further studies. A young man, Graham can take such risks, both with his career and love life, without encountering the stigma Jenny endures.
The most troubling aspect of the film is that, in dealing with her life with David, Jenny’s parents and friends seem concerned mainly with the practical problems that arise from the relationship. They worry about how it will affect her schooling or her ability to make a living, while paying little attention to the emotional trauma and manipulation she endures. Though she willingly enters into the relationship, she seems to do so less for true love than a love for what David represents. Jenny conflates action and identity, proclaiming, “If we didn’t do anything, we wouldn’t be anybody,” but her actions push her further and further from the relatively carefree teen she once was.
The film's resolution feels rushed: a montage of scenes followed by a voice-over by Jenny, which only subtly implies the way in which her relationship has affected her, and seems to categorize the experience in the teenagers-will-be-teenagers category. Jenny has moved forward with determination, but at the end of “An Education” the viewers are left wondering what she’s really learned.