After years of reading positive reviews for An Education, especially the forever underrated Carey Mulligan, I decided to finally give in and watch it. To preface, I love romantic period dramas similar to this film, so I was supremely surprised to be so conflicted once the credits started rolling. The cast is stacked with two talented leads and scene-stealing secondary characters. The protagonist’s story is both relatable and dreamy in equal parts and yet I was left questioning whether or not I truly enjoyed the movie. Spoilers ahead!
Released in 2009, An Education follows sixteen-year-old Jenny Mellor (Carey Mulligan) through her preparatory exam years in her efforts to get into her dream school, Oxford University, when she meets charming and seemingly wealthy David Goldman (Peter Sarsgaard). Even though he is almost two times her age, Jenny is swiftly entranced with David’s appealing ease and lavish lifestyle. It’s a bit perplexing sometimes that even someone as smart as Jenny would be so naïve with David, rarely picking up on the disconcerting signs about him. Without any extensive romantic experience herself, Jenny’s exposure to this type of relationship wouldn’t consist of anything other than stories she’s heard from friends. As a result, it’s frustratingly understandable how Jenny doesn’t uphold her normal values and standards when it comes to David.
As Jenny and David’s relationship deepens and becomes more intimate, I felt increasingly uncomfortable with their proximity and evolution. It made me wonder: how would I have reacted to this film if I had seen it back in 2009? At that time, disturbing sexual and predatory behaviors were obviously not great, but they weren’t something that would necessarily turn the average person off from seeing a film outright. However, now social norms are different because of the Me Too movement and countless other calls for justice and change in how we experience and portray sexuality, relationships, and abuse of power. I felt myself maneuvering back and forth between the two distinct parts of our societal history, in this respect, making it truly difficult to determine how I felt about An Education as a whole.
In the past, the narrative’s relationship may have appeared more romantic, more ideal, a dream, perhaps, and the focus would be on how fated the duo seemed to be. A handsome, rich older man who wants to take care of your problems, show you the beauty of the world, the sparkling shiny fun bits isn’t something most would turn down when they’re sixteen. When you’re immersed in the ritzy positivity of it all, you aren’t necessarily thinking about how much of yourself you’re sacrificing for what is supposed to be ‘the dream.’ When clinging to these points of appealing distinction, it definitely feeds into gender stereotypes of the woman needing to be provided for, the man’s mistakes being forgiven because of all that he does for her, allowing him to get away with more unsavory behaviors because of all that David does for Jenny. Satisfyingly, Jenny rarely gives into those societal norms of life as a woman in 1960s London, for the most part, anyway.
However, as a present-day viewer, their relationship feels so dodgy from the seemingly innocent first interaction they have in the pouring rain, a cello in need of a safe haven. As David approaches the situation with purposefully unintimidating air, he appears predatory immediately to the audience, since it’s been firmly established at that point how young Jenny is. Every longing, lusting-filled look she gives Jenny in their first car ride together is nauseating because their impending relationship feels inevitable. It’s a relationship that we darkly want to see play out, even now, because there’s a smidge of hope that maybe it won’t end up predictably. With the romance itself being so unappealing, it’s a saving grace that the acting of the two leads, especially Mulligan’s performance, is so effective and grounded in the chaos that, even though it’s repulsive to see them together as a couple, the performances are magnetic and enticing to experience.
An Education is a feminist story of a young woman exploring her desires and her life as an individual. Jenny no longer wants to feel the restraints of her parents’ and society’s expectations for a girl her age, but when she begins to explore this aspect of her life in expansive ways, Jenny’s naivety takes the reigns as she navigates each decision.
Are predatory stories like this still necessary in present-day cinema? While they may be even more uncomfortable to watch now, they still do serve a purpose in their own subsect of the romantic drama genre. Difficult stories deserve their time on the screen, especially with a female director, like An Education’s Lone Scherfig, to bring their own perspective to the larger conversation.
Thankfully, the audience is quickly attached to and protective of Jenny with her presence being what keeps the viewer invested, even when she makes decisions that are questionable. It ultimately leaves the viewer empowered by Jenny’s coming of age to know what she truly wanted for her future. An Education is first and foremost always Jenny’s story. Sure, David waltzes in and out of her daily life, influencing big changes, but it’s always been her story to tell.