With the new “The Great Gatsby” film gathering publicity as the release date gets closer, it seems appropriate to focus on an earlier Carrie Mulligan — Daisy in Baz Luhrmann’s take on the classic — film that hints at the same richness as “Gatsby” without the exact same themes. Lone Scherfig’s 2009 Oscar nominated film “An Education” takes place in 1960s London and focuses on Jenny Mellor (played by Mulligan).
Jenny is about to turn 17, is highly pressured to do well in school by her parents, has a gangly boyfriend and is obsessed with culture. Though she is doing well in her studies and wants to study English at Oxford, she seems to long for something else as she speaks French to her friends and smokes cigarettes. That something else is David Goldman.
David is at least twice Jenny’s age but offers to give her a ride home from school one day. They spark a friendship when he takes Jenny on outings by charming (and sometimes lying to) her parents. She inevitably falls for him, and as an audience, we are not all that opposed to the idea. David, though smooth talking and much older, has class, and this is exactly what Jenny sees in him. Jenny herself begins to seem much older, dressing up in new clothes which David purchased, hanging around his friends, going to concerts and auctions. Eventually, the two go to Paris for Jenny’s 17th birthday, a trip that serves to represent her complete dismissal of her old life for her new one.
As Jenny falls more in love with David and his lifestyle, she slips in school to the point where she can no longer graduate. This does not bother her parents, however, even though they have dreamed of Jenny going to Oxford her whole life. David has proposed to Jenny, and they see this as being as good a future for her as any other. The film continues to follow Jenny as she deals with the consequences of her decision and learns about the fantasy she was living in and the reality that she is facing.
One aspect of the film that was spot on, besides the well tailored mise-en-scéne, was the well-tailored clothes. The costuming in this film helped give the movie a time and a tone, seamlessly stitching together the reality of Jenny’s life and the fantasy of the life she briefly gets to live. Not only her clothes, but her entire appearance changes as she steps from one life to the other, and the costuming helps to continue the theme of transition, deciding and growing up.
The main theme of the film is the future. Jenny critiques her high school teacher, Miss Stubbs, for leading a boring life, going from one school to the next, not taking any chances and not being truly alive. As she says this, you are carried along with her in her message, but as the film progresses, you realize just how wrong she is. At the same time, you can’t help but side with this opinion of Jenny’s that one has to learn to “live.”
The ending narration of the film gives the viewer the sense that Jenny has lived more than one life, and maybe that’s what the film is getting at. No one way to go about it is the right way, so you might as well try each path you are given. David is not painted as the worst decision that Jenny could make, and Oxford is not seen as a blazing light at the end of the tunnel. The film gives the situation intense grey areas in which to process not just Jenny’s life, but your own. It is an applicable film for any graduating senior, as well, for though Jenny is making the decision to go to college, the film’s focus is mostly on the ways in which we can get swept up in our own ideas of the future and the right path.