At sixteen, Jenny (Carey Mulligan) already has life planned out for her. She is to study, ace her exams, and enter Oxford University. Under her father’s iron rule, she is allowed no distractions, her inclinations toward music and literature notwithstanding. But then she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), a much older man who dazzles her with his savoir faire. He takes her on a dizzying tour of the world’s pleasures, at the end of which Jenny begins to understand that life is much more complicated than it seems, and what having a real education is all about.
Strictly speaking, there is nothing new in this movie. An Education teaches an old lesson in an old way, rendering in visuals a parent’s common reprimand. It’s a very simple story—and maybe that’s why it succeeds. It possesses a genuine quality that makes it difficult for viewers to turn away. In it, we see how much of life is in shades of gray, and how challenging it is to make intelligent decisions when the situation isn’t black and white—how easy it is to make a mistake.
Jenny wanted a lot of things, but what she wanted the most was to be treated like an adult—something she is continually denied. Before intercourse, she tells David, “No baby talk… Just treat me like a grownup, okay?” However much of a child she was at the beginning, Jenny grows in the course of the film. But even at the end, when she says to her school headmistress, “I suppose you think I’m a ruined woman,” the headmistress only laughs and says, “You’re not a woman.”
The title refers to both Jenny’s schooling and her experience with David, from whom she learns much—in many ways. Rebelling against the rigors of academic learning, she argues, “It’s not enough to educate us anymore. You’ve got to tell us why you’re doing it.” Essentially, these are the questions the movie asks: What makes an education? How much do students really learn from studying; from real life? How important are both? We see the answers unfold with Jenny’s life, with the choices she makes and their resulting consequences. The film’s treatment of the subject, however, is not simply didactic. Instead we see things through the eyes of a young girl, whom we follow until—despite what the headmistress says—she eventually finds her way to becoming a woman.
‘But if we’re all going to die the moment we graduate, isn’t it what we do before that counts?’