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Film / An Education

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A 2009 British Coming of Age drama film, set in 1961 London.

Sixteen-year-old Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is attending school, preparing for her A-levels and hoping to go to Oxford. One day, she meets an older man named David (Peter Sarsgaard), who charms her into a romance, distracting from her schoolwork. David introduces her to a whole new world out of her little suburb—a world of nightclubs, auctions for beautiful paintings, racing, and romance. Jenny soon has to make a choice between the academic world she's always prepared for—and the world of fun.

But little does she know how much David is hiding...

This film provides examples of:

  • Age-Gap Romance: Jenny is sixteen and has a relationship with David who appears to be in his thirties. Her parents are not too happy about it, but he soon charms them completely and they allow Jenny to date him. He asks her to marry him and she agrees. It turns out he's already married. She tracks down his house and gets to meet David's wife who is shattered. Not by David's cheating, she's used to that; she's shattered by Jenny's youth.
  • All That Glitters: Nearing the climax of the film, Jenny chooses to take the easy way out by dropping out of school and marrying David. However, it is revealed that David is already married, and he runs out on Jenny when she finds out.
  • Ascended Fangirl: When David takes the francophile Jenny to Paris.
  • Beneath the Mask: David impresses everyone as charismatic, cultured and suave. In reality, he's not only a shameless, selfish conman but a married man who suffers no guilt from repeatedly cheating on his wife and ruining his family life by preying on naive schoolgirls.
  • Beta Couple: Helen and Danny. Subverted in that Danny frequently seems annoyed by Helen's airheaded nature, but they're still together in the end.
  • Boyfriend-Blocking Dad: Jenny's dad obviously dislikes Jenny's suitor Graham and is initially a bit wary of David, but David's charm easily persuades him.
  • Brainy Brunette: Jenny has brown hair and she is a genuine smart cookie, though still naive, which is understandable because she's 16. This is a contrast to Dumb Blonde Helen.
  • Break the Cutie: Jenny starts the film as a kind, naive bookworm eager to explore the world and not spend her whole life studying. Discovering David's true nature leaves her shattered and in tears, knowing that she pushed away loved ones and (almost) ruined her chances at an education because of a liar.
  • Bridal Carry: David carries Jenny in his arms shortly before they have sex for the first time.
  • Bumbling Dad: Jack is easily swayed by David's charisma despite his doddering attempts to keep Jenny in school and out of trouble. After David's deception is revealed he apologizes to Jenny for not paying closer attention.
  • Chekhov's Classroom: The discussions of Jane Eyre in Jenny's English class.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • David's letters in the glove compartment of his car are shown several times before it's importance is revealed.
    • David helps out a black family move into an apartment. Jenny sees an old woman looking out of the window. Both are plot-relevant.
  • Coming of Age Story: Jenny starts off as a bright but naive girl eager to explore the world, and thinks she's finally getting an education of a different sort by being involved with the older, cultured, charming David. Though the true lesson is the importance of education, wisdom and self-reliance when the truth about David is revealed.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Jenny meeting David. Not so much when it's revealed he actually lives down the street from her.
  • Dance of Romance: David and Jenny, falling in love, are waltzing in the street and they later dance in Paris.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: Jenny doesn't get the glamorous life with David she'd dreamed of, though she is shown with a boyfriend when she makes it to Oxford.
  • Dogged Nice Guy: Graham to Jenny, and though she originally reciprocates his affection she grows cool to him after getting involved with David. After his awkward appearance at her 17th birthday party, he's never seen again.
  • Double Entendre: When Jenny expresses an interest in seeing France, David replies that he'd love to take her, and there's "so much" he wants her to see. Cue Danny and Helen exchanging an uncomfortable glance.
  • Double-Meaning Title: The title can refer to Jenny's school education, which she gains an appreciation for by the end of the film, or her education of life, which she thinks she's getting by hanging around the cultured David and his friends. Though the real education is her naive worldview being rocked by The Reveal of David's true character and her growing up a bit.
  • Dumb Blonde: Helen. She's not particularly bright and has little use for education and culture and looks down at anything unglamorous with derision, much to the cultured Danny's frustration.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: David turns out to be a lying scumbag, and Jenny finds herself without her test results and without an admittance letter to Oxford. She chooses to work hard to get there despite it all, gets accepted, and moves on to what looks like a pleasant and accomplished life.
  • Education Mama: Papa rather than Mama, but Jenny's dad approves of Jenny's intentions of going to Oxford, and he pressures her even more to study and work on her dream. Ideally, she should be only studying and improving her Latin, and as far as music goes, her playing the cello is just fine, none of the French modern music nonsense! He simply doesn't want her to be distracted by anything inappropriate. However, he's also fairly kind and understanding, and Jenny's mom knows how to influence him.
  • Ephebophile: Jenny is only 16 when David takes an interest in her. Even creepier, it seems that he pursues her not just because he's a deviant, but because he knows at her young age, she'll be naive and foolish enough to never question or doubt anything he says or does, as demonstrated by how quickly she buys his and Danny's feeble explanation for their thievery.
  • Escapism: Jenny's attraction to the cultured, traveled David is based in her reluctance to follow what she considers to be the only two options at home: continue her education and be bored working forever, or get married and become a bored housewife. Though the film ends on something of an Anti-Escapism Aesop as Jenny reels from the shock of David's true nature and realizes the importance of an education.
  • Everybody Knew Already:
    • Rather, they didn't even try to keep it a secret. Seriously, when your headmistress knows not only that you are planning on losing your virginity, but when, to whom, and roughly where, you are doing something very wrong.
    • Helen and Danny, regarding David's history with other girls and women. Though it doesn't seem to bother either of them until it happened to Jenny.
  • Expository Hairstyle Change: Jenny wears her hair in sophisticated updos when she's with David and his friends, but goes back to her usual girlish hairstyle both when she's at home or at school, and once she discovers his deception and the relationship ends, representing the fact that for all her attempts at seeming grown-up, that she is still really a child.
  • Foreshadowing: Frequent discussion of Jane Eyre in Jenny's English class. Mr. Rochester was keeping his wife a secret as well.
  • Fourth-Date Marriage: Within roughly weeks (if not months), David pops the question to Jenny.
  • Gratuitous French: Used often by Jenny, out of the blue and lampshaded bluntly by Helen:
    Helen: You have a French conversation teacher? Is that why you suddenly speak French? For no reason?
  • Green-Eyed Monster: David claims Danny is this when he doesn't seem too pleased by Jenny's engagement to David; Danny just didn't want Jenny to get hurt because both Helen and he knew that David was already married.
  • Hard-Work Montage: Jenny studying to get into Oxford after re-entering school following the fallout with David.
  • Horrible Judge of Character: Even after learning of David's shady business, Jenny continues to be strung along by David until the climax. Her father also, as he admits that he heard something that should have tipped him off to the fact that David wasn't completely honest, but he chose to ignore it, having himself been so drawn in by David's flashy lifestyle.
  • I Just Want to Be Special: Jenny is attracted to David and his adventurous life, full of concerts, jazz music, and parties, in comparison to her apparent "boring" life, full of attending school, studying for Oxford, and reading Latin.
  • Ironic Echo: Of sorts. David takes Jenny to Paris, a place she has always wanted to go to, as she loves French books, films, and music. At the end of the film, Jenny's boyfriend said he wants to take her to Paris, and Jenny narrates that she acted surprised, as if she had never been there before.
  • Irony: Jenny is attracted to David because he's a fun, exciting alternative to a "boring" life of studying and teaching. When it's revealed he's actually married with children and has a long string of schoolgirl paramours, she realizes that the affairs were his version of a fun, exciting alternative to his "boring" family life.
  • It's All About Me: David has no concern for the people around him, whether it's his neglected family or the girls he seduces and abandons. When Jenny finds out his secret he refuses to accept responsibility for what he did and runs away. Even when he's trying to do what he thinks is the right thing (in a deleted scene from the end of the film when he finds Jenny at Oxford) he responds to her very justified anger at the way he treated her with "Please don't be unkind," and honestly seems to believe that she'd still want to marry him after she's rebuilt her life following his betrayal and gotten to attend university.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: The headmistress has no business butting into Jenny's personal life, but she's not entirely wrong to try and warn her about her behavior and getting too involved with David, especially considering how everything turned out.
  • Karma Houdini: David never faces any consequences for his actions in the film proper, though a Deleted Scene in which he encounters Jenny at Oxford shows that his thieving ways finally caught up with him and that he spent some time in prison.
  • Left the Background Music On: Whenever a French song plays in the background, it's most likely this.
  • Leitmotif: A recurring theme played throughout the film plays hints to David and his schemes.
  • Liquid Courage: Jenny mentions that David is engaging in this before coming in to confess to her parents that he's already married. She bitterly and sarcastically adds on "Stolen liquid courage, from the looks of it," having finally seen the light about all of David's behavior.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: David is a gender-flipped version for Jenny. Later deconstructed, when it turns out that David is not all that he seems.
  • Mood Whiplash: Several scenes. Often, whenever the music changes tone is a hint to David's shady schemes.
  • Motive Decay: An in-universe example. Jenny wants to attend Oxford so that she can study and read English. After being exposed to David and his much more attractive life (and at the approval of her parents), Jenny gives this up to marry David, as he can already give her the life she has always wanted. This decision comes back to bite her.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: When Jenny discovers that David is a married man, she is devastated, as she dropped out of school and didn't take her A-levels to be with him.
  • Never Trust a Trailer: The segment that the trailer showed of Emma Thompson's character made her seem like a rather stern but not unkind mentor—"You must think I'm a ruined woman." "Oh, no. You're not a woman." Not so in the actual movie.
  • Old Maid: Miss Stubbs. Jenny rubs her face into it until she finds out David's deception and reconciles with her, realizing Miss Stubbs has a perfectly content life.
  • One Dialogue, Two Conversations: While Jenny and Danny are dancing, they have a discussion about art. Or at least, this is what Jenny thinks. Danny is really subtly warning Jenny that David isn't what he seems.
  • Plot-Sensitive Snooping Skills: Jenny is so infatuated with David that it never occurs to her that he might already be married.
  • The Reveal: David is married.
  • Rewatch Bonus: Helen and Danny's discomfort with David's flirtations with Jenny gets this when you realize that not only did they know he was married, Jenny isn't the first girl he's done this to.
  • Right for the Wrong Reasons: Jenny's teacher is right to be suspicious of David, and to advise Jenny against marrying him. Unfortunately, it's because David is Jewish.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Assumed, but not intended. In the final scene with Jenny and her new boyfriend biking around the Oxford campus, David's car can be seen parked on the side of the street. This is remnant from the longer original ending in which David tries to win Jenny back. Carey Mulligan and director Lone Scherfig joke on the DVD commentary that only a few people actually catch this on the first viewing and those who do catch it assume that David has resorted to stalking her.
  • Those Two Guys: Jenny's friends, Hattie and Tina. They're a great Greek Chorus for Jenny's ego, hanging on every detail of her romance, but then either she dumps them or they dump her because they're never seen again. Though, it might be because she dropped out of school, so it wasn't necessary for them to be seen again. A deleted scene would have shown Jenny apologising to them for being a bad friend after The Reveal.
  • A Tragedy of Impulsiveness: Jenny accepts David's proposal despite only knowing him for a matter of weeks or months, deciding to drop out of school and not attend university. Unsurprisingly, the older, cunning conman turns out to be hiding a wife and children, not to mention the string of other paramours he's abandoned.
  • Uptight Loves Wild: Jenny and David's relationship at first; she's a lower-class, studious schoolgirl while he's a rogueish, cultured conman who can show her everything she's ever dreamed of. She even tells off her headmistress and teacher because she would rather have a lavish, exciting life with David than live a "boring," studious life going to university. Only when his deception is revealed, and she realizes that deceiving paramours is his version of fun, does she finally realize the importance of her education.
  • What the Hell, Hero?:
    • Jenny pulls this twice on David for his shady business (but she gets over it quickly) and when she finds out about his wife; she also pulls this on Danny, who always knew about the latter. Danny counters this by reminding Jenny that she didn't think too much of their shady business either.
    • Jenny's teacher and headmistress both question Jenny on her romance with an older guy on more than one occasion. And Jenny pushes right back.
  • Wise Beyond Their Years: Jenny seems sure that she's wise and pretty clever for a girl of her age. She really isn't. And she lampshades it in this exchange with Miss Stubbs:
    Miss Stubbs: You sound very old and wise.
    Jenny: I feel old, but not very wise.
  • A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing: David. A charming, cultured man who resorts to con jobs to keep up his lavish lifestyle and preys on schoolgirls despite being married with children.
  • Wrong Guy First: David is Jenny's first real relationship. He turns out to be a married serial cheater, but the epilogue implies she's had satisfying relationships in Oxford.