A Bright Film with a Dark Heart

by David Hamilton (October 2010)

The film “An Education” is a coming of age story adapted from a memoir by well-known Guardian journalist, Lyn Barber, from her teenage life in 1961.(1) It is her recollection of being wooed and feted as a 16 year-old girl by an older man in his mid 30s.  She was a talented young girl with a lust for life. It is a “journey” film but her journey was along the wrong course and back on track again: a coming of age film. The film was released in October 2009 and critically acclaimed with eight BAFTA nominations, a nomination for a Golden Globe and numerous glowing reviews.

“An Education’ is one of the best films released in a long while with superb actors, script and the power to make you question and change your views about education.
The reviews in general are conventional and miss a dark, sinister heart in this well-acted and engaging drama. (2) It is seen as entertainment in a standard theme of coming of age after some life experiences. It has a subtle screenplay by Nick Hornby and the director was involved until the third draft.(3) The moral of the story is about making the right choices in life. Jenny and her parents are taken in by a charmer, a sociopath, and the choice is fun and sophisticated restaurants and hotels or a humdrum life of teaching or civil service that begins after Oxford University.

Jenny reasons that her parents and teachers have failed to achieve a life she can regard as inspirational and, as she is joyful and intoxicated with David and his friends, why should she work so hard to pursue an Oxford career? Why not drop out and live life to the fullest? As events unfold, things are not as clear cut as they seemed.

Ultimately Jenny works out for herself why education is worth pursuing. Some reviewers have described it as a charming film, romantic, serious and funny, not substantial, but giving an authentic slice of English life– teachers, parents and institutions. It’s a bit sexy and a bit sad. There is a moving confessional scene at the end when the dad delivers a cup of tea with his biscuits to his grieving daughter’s door.

The cast is outstanding with faultless acting. Carey Mulligan is radiant as Jenny and Alfred Molina plays her limited father, easily persuaded by the glib Peter Sarsgaard as David, and Olivia Williams as the despairing teacher. Dominic Cooper is excellent as David’s friend, one of those slimy types who live by their wits and always choose malleable, attractive women. Rosamund Pike as his girlfriend is outstanding especially when Helen is puzzled by the common term “to read English” while the great Billy Fury’s Maybe Tomorrow plays in the background.

The film explores eternal questions that rise up in young lives: Jenny asks herself about the importance of passing her exams and going to Oxford are echoes of thoughts other teenagers have. The contrast between David, his glamorous friends and lifestyle whose education was at the ‘university of life’, and the ‘boring’ life led by Jenny’s English teacher and headmistress who both had degrees is marked. 

But what have they missed – with the exception of a friend who contacted me in alarm? That this film succeeds in promoting a negative image of Jewishness while reviewers analysed it conventionally through the orthodox ideology. What we are seeing in this is the beginning of the creation of anti-Jewish stereotype and we have caught it as it emerges from the shadows. Antisemitism in Britain usually comes from Liberal-Socialist types who oppose Israel and support Palestinian groups. This could herald Jewish people getting The Frankfurt School Treatment – negative, psychological warfare. David’s character is introduced and defined by his Jewishness. I would have expected “sociopathy” but the film presents Jewishness as a pathology.

The First Act or exposition stage of a film introduces the characters and shows Jenny’s normal life and introduces her ambition for Oxford. Jenny’s normal world is disrupted by David who enters it at 6 minutes into the film and defines himself as a Jew. This is the part of a film where character is defined and this is how we interpret the film; we carry this notion of his character through the film. This view of David acting as he does because he is Jewish is not undercut later in the film and this is the context in which all his actions now take place. He is defined as someone Jewish behaving in a typical way rather than a sociopath who happens to be Jewish as is usual in contemporary film and drama. This departs from the orthodox ideology and presents his badness as growing out of being Jewish.

The story is advanced by scenes and these scenes which show him taking Jenny to places are driven by David’s character which is defined as Jewish not sociopathic. The writer selects events to create a strong dramatic line.

The theme of David as a Wandering Jew is reinforced by Dad’s comment to Jenny’s young friend, Graham-the one who is to be dismissed because he is awkward and young. We are thus prepared for the entry of a “Wandering Jew.” This is his essential nature in the film as he is faithless and always on the move. At his first visit to her home, she emphasises at 15 minutes that he is a “Wandering Jew” and he then walks in as her father is repeating it. Her father laughs embarrassedly.

We are given clues to David’s nature at 29 minutes in, when we see him leave Jenny in the car to let a family of Black immigrants into a flat while an elderly woman looks out of a window worriedly. Jenny is in David’s world now, not her own. Soon after, we see her enjoying herself with her new friends as her schoolwork suffers. This is quickly followed by David and his associate stealing an historic and valuable map from an elderly lady. Jenny recoils at this but is talked around and becomes a party to it. She becomes a party to their dishonesty.

Dad gives her a Latin dictionary for her birthday as her young suitor Graham does, too-which shows him as young and awkward compared to the suave and confident David. David’s charm and greater sophistication are pointed up as he brings a pile of presents. David appears to be understanding and sympathetic and gets around her “simple” parents. The evil as part of Jewishness is given absolute emphasis at 105 minutes when they go to meet Rachman at the races: “He is not the sort of person who has an office.” Rachman is eponymous and his name is a by-word for corrupt landlords. This knowledge reinforces the negativity of Jewishness in the film. The derogatory term “Rachmanism” came from him as did new laws that were passed to protect people. One scam as mentioned above was moving Black immigrant families in or prostitutes to drive elderly sitting tenants who were protected by law out. These elderly ladies are referred to a “Stats” in the film.

In the film, Jenny naively failed to look for contradictions or to question her lover more closely but just goes along with his corruption as David gives her justifications (albeit immoral ones such as the map being better off with them since the old lady didn’t know what it was). In the article, Barber claims it was because her teenage self affected a suburban existentialism that forbade such questioning as “bourgeois”. Hornby’s script suggests that there was more than that. She was deceived by a low type and hindered by English politeness while being ashamed of her own lack of sophistication. She was taken in by someone brazen enough to believe in his own lies, by one we are told is “a Wandering Jew”. I doubt that open antisemitism would be expressed by a headteacher (Emma Thompson) at that time and that she would have denounced Jews as Christ-killers in so blunt a way, if at all. This is based on the memoir as headmistress Miss R.Scott-Garwood looked aghast when Jenny told her she was to marry a Jewish man but that does not imply the harsh denunciation of the film. This was condemnation; not shock.

I enjoyed the film but was concerned about this one disturbing addition to the source material for the film which seemed intentionally included by the film makers for no other reason except to further an anti-Semitic agenda. 

How would the adapter approach the source material? In the early stages of the film, the exposition stage, when character is being explained, there are references to “a Wandering Jew,” and in his first appearance, David defines himself as a “Jew”. From now on his behaviour is seen as being because he is Jewish. An important function of dialogue is to reveal character as one talks about oneself or when other characters do. This also carries the story forward and communicates information to the audience. Here, this was done by constant references to David’s Jewishness. As David is the second principle character who drives the plot forward, Jewishess becomes a main theme.

David in the film is good-looking but in real life not so. In the memoir, Lyn Barber writes: “Of course my friends all clamoured to meet Simon, but I never let them. I was afraid of something –afraid perhaps that they would see through him, see, not the James Bond figure I had depicted, but this rather short, rather ugly, long-faced, splay-footed man who talked in different accents and lied about his age, whose stories didn’t add up.”

Events bring out character and the events involving David drive the film. This requires a clearly defined character with specific traits and sociopathy would have been the more appropriate choice but, instead, the filmmakers deliberately emphasise David’s Jewishness. The events selected by the filmmakers show David’s atrocious character and by now we have been prepared by allusions to see this as inhering in or stemming from his Jewishness.

The American novelist Henry James had an analogy of illumination that goes thus: He imagined a main character in a circle surrounded by the other characters each time one interacts with him they illuminate a different aspect of his character. Dialogue illuminates character and tells the audience about the character’s history. This is a “journey” story and its strength comes from this.

The talk with the headmistress re-affirms David’s nature. “Jews killed our Lord” and are therefore evil. The audience waits for this “truth” to be undercut but it is affirmed at the climax. David is from those who killed our Lord-the symbol of goodness who came to save us. He is the betrayer, the Judas.

We don’t know if any of the other characters are Methodist, Anglican, Protestant, atheist, etc. and wouldn’t know unless that was chosen to be highlighted. His use of “shwartzeh” for black, rather than just saying “blacks” or “negroes” (considering the time), seems as if they are making it more of a slur. 

His Jewishness was emphasised throughout the entire film-from his comment at the beginning and then many more times throughout in case one kept missing it. Jenny is  redeemed at the end by going to Oxford and, of course, the headmistress is then shown to be right.

Jews are, as a voting bloc, ultra-liberal and sympathize with socialism. They are intelligent and successful but are they, as a group, dishonest and corrupting? This film gives that impression.

David is the only Jewish character in the film and it is part of his self-image. There are no external signs of Jewishness– no kippah, no ethnic look or clothing so, if one didn’t know-if he or someone else in the film wasn’t continually pointing it out, he would be a character like the others rather than the embodiment of an ethnicity. He is a corrupter of innocence; a fraud, a thief, a liar, a scammer. He is a child abandoner. He has done this before, according to the abandoned wife with child beside her, who is now jaded. He has impregnated other innocent British girls. He lowers property values and ruins society. He steals from innocent vulnerable people and takes the treasures of the culture for himself like the stereotypical money-grubbing Jew. 

There is a purposeful link made between the Jew and evil and corruption. It is purposeful because they produced it that way. It is not fair to say, well, the fellow in real life upon which the film is based was a Jew because so many other details of the memoir were altered and many were altered radically. But the man was not only kept a Jew in the film, his ethnicity was emphasised while so much else was changed.

This is not subtle, but explaining it is difficult because it is almost impossible to see if one is not attuned to this kind of propaganda. But, to an Englishman who has been made to feel guilty from birth for our history, it was plain.  A Jewish friend in America emailed me in some distress and, to be sure she had got it right, I asked what situations the Jewish character is shown in. As soon as she said exploiting Blacks I knew she had spotted something important because that is how we English are made to feel guilty, by negative stereotypes, which destroy the humanity of a select group and dehumanises them. Once that takes hold, anything can be done to them because they cease to be seen as human. Once this is explained, it’s plain.

The same kind of propaganda found in Nazi antisemitic literature makes a return in “An Education” but at a more subtle level. This is how a negative political ideology works: it takes a group and dehumanises them by substituting negative characteristics for their essential humanity. Whatever goes wrong it is they who did it and people can retaliate without conscience because they do not share our humanity.


  1. http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2009/jun/07/lynn-barber-virginity-relationships
  2. http://www.amazon.co.uk/product-reviews/B002UYP7D4/ref=dp_top_cm_cr_acr_txt?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=1

    3.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jr2ZPHm18gQ

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