Of what value is an education? Humanity has sought experience and knowledge since the dawn of consciousness, and for just as long has been casting doubt upon its own learning. In particular, the highly structured, conventionalized "educations" of modern civilization have inspired criticism and confusion; counter-arguments have often used mere tradition as a recourse, to little satisfaction. In An Education, Jenny (Carey Mulligan) listens to the tired defenses of her elite school's headmistress (Emma Thomson) - "There's also the civil service" she declares as a last resort. Unimpressed, Jenny informs the older woman that she'll have to do much better if someone asks for the point of all this experience in the future; an education which merely perpetuates itself (all those encouraging Jenny to complete her schooling have themselves become teachers) seems senseless to the young schoolgirl.
Ironically, then, the education which An Education ultimately calls into question is that of the real world rather than the academic sphere. Jenny has fallen in love with a charming rich rogue, David (Peter Sarsgaard) who seems to have everything she wants in spades. He can take her to classical concerts, tony art auctions, and nightclubs; her parents, the supposedly prim and proper guardians of her adolescent liberty, are instantly melted by his charms. Even the knowledge that David is involved in shady business deals and outright thieving is not enough to disillusion Jenny; she realizes this is the price she must pay for the rewards of her romance. Yet there's far more to be paid, as she eventually finds out - before the big bombshell drops, she's already faced with a discussion: pursue her relationship with David to its logical conclusion, or continue to devote all her energies to studying and getting into Oxford, her goal since - it seems - infancy.
As it turns out, not at all to our surprise, David is not what Jenny thinks he is. As the final twist reveals, in a device admittedly as old as the movies, the erstwhile lover is in fact already married and Jenny - who has dropped out of school to become engaged - is neither the first nor presumably the last of his conquests. Capsized on the cusp of adulthood, Jenny must struggle to fix her sails and continue towards the university horizon, crippled by this romantic tempest but determined to stay the course and conceal her scars. The movie concludes when she is accepted to Oxford - we witness our heroine biking with other boys ("they were all boys" she notes of her collegian lovers, with a note of condescending resignation) and informing us that while she appeared as fresh-faced and naive as her peers, she was not. When invited to Paris, where she had already travelled - and fornicated - with David, Jenny tells her foolish boyfriend that she'd love to go: "I've never been."
Here then, we have two educations, one discredited, one celebrated - with roles reversed at the conclusion. Jenny's immersion in real-life experience ("I never lived before I met you," she tells David) is rich and rewarding in the moment, but contains no lasting value. No, not even the value of growing up, except in the sense that she now knows what not to do: as the film informs us, the young woman must deny her past in order to fulfill her future. Meanwhile, the formal education - the much-satirized rigidity of the teaching corps and the primrose path to Oxford - is finally upheld after being slagged for two hours. Nothing grows on trees, as Jenny's father and boyfriend both tell her, and the striving acquisition of knowledge and conventional experience (in the sense that it unfolds on the expected timetable, in the expected ways) are ultimately the only potential seeds of success.
Strangely, the movie - which seems to take this conclusion at face value - has never really answered Jenny's nagging criticisms of the headmistress. It's still unclear what her future holds, except for honesty if you believe that to be its own virtue; we've seen why her alternative to a conventional education was hopeless, but not why that conventional education is much better. An Education seems to blink in the face of nihilism, and retreat. At any rate, the movie's "message", however incomplete is less a hindrance than some of the flaws in its execution: the script is often too on-the-nose (Jenny's father gives her a pep talk through the bathroom door which doesn't tell us anythng new; Emma Thompson's satire of a proper snobbish anti-Semite is amusing but superficial) and at other times too unconvincing (David's ability to hoodwink Jenny's parents never quite rings true, though it has an interesting foundation in class envy).
The most fatally unconvincing element of the film is Sarsgaard's performance as David. The actor is unfortunately miscast at the charismatic heel - and here's a case where miscasting is due not to inability (Sarsgaard is a fine actor I've enjoyed in many roles) so much as the wrong presence. David should be less overtly sinister, more superficially appealing, a monster whose completely easy manner conceals a sociopathic ferocity. But Sarsgaard makes us uneasy from the moment he starts flirting with a 16-year-old girl; he's more often creepy than charming. A David who could both seduce this foolish romantic girl and her bourgeois parents should be effortlessly aristocratic, with his Jewish background less an outsider red-flag than a simmering discontent motivating his subversions. He should win us over emotionally, allowing us to welcome his presence and believe in his promises on a surface level, even as intellectually we know something's amiss. Sarsgaard broadcasts his malevolence through melancholy hardset features and a trademark physical unease - then when it comes time to display his cowardly, malicious qualities in their full measure he's not quite able to sell this either. Again, due more to a disconnect between the actor's tangible presence and the character's supposed personality than to any insufficiency in Sarsgaard's ability.
Carey Mulligan more than makes up for Sarsgaard's miscasting. Indeed, the film rests on her shoulders, or rather her touchingly awkward but enticing gazes and glances (no matter what she's actually looking at, Jenny always seems to be her own object of contemplation, like a classical figurine). Director Lone Sherfig has given the movie a gloss which captures early-sixties chic and eternal romantic idealism, but these would be empty signifiers without Mulligan's heartbreaking moodiness to enliven them. Almost always onscreen, she collapses the movie in her absence; floating past its own flaws and cliches on the wings of her sad little eyes and crooked smile, the film achieves a kind of cool, sincere grace. Mullignan's soulful countenance convinces us that she's sucking the juice out of every moment (even those she believes"boring" - probably her synonym for resltessness rather than lifelessness). This romantic willingness effectively, and subtly, belies the movie's commitment to a "sensible" education, and almost convinces us that, foolishness aside, Jenny's romance was the more valuable experience. But then movies always have a way of making ephemera more attractive than acquisition; whether this holds true for reality, I leave it for you to decide. Educate yourself at will.