The XX Factor

Is the Love Affair in “An Education” Statutory Rape?

An Education , which hits theatres today, is either really lucky or really unlucky about its release date. Coming on the heels of the Roman Polanski arrest, which stirred discussion over whether sex with a minor is ever OK, the movie’s plot line is particularly fraught. An absolutely adorable Carey Mulligan plays Jenny, a 16-going-on-17-year-old student in 1961 England, who is courted by the much-older David, played by Peter Sarsgaard.

A piece about the film on ABC News today asks whether sex with a minor can be consensual , and pulls out a line Jenny’s teacher delivers to her, toward the end of the film: “You’re just a child.” It’s a line that screenwriter Nick Hornby now regrets, according to Mulligan, given the shadow the Polanski arrest has cast on the film. (Jenny and David do it, rather matter-of-factly, on her 17 th birthday.)

But what was so powerful to me about An Education was how little you thought about the age difference between Jenny and David. She’s legally a child, perhaps, but she fits in better intellectually and emotionally with David’s crew than her peers. Her relationship with David was complex and totally messed up in a lot of ways, but age wasn’t the one that mattered-not to me, and not to any of the characters. For Jenny’s parents, it was enough that she be married and taken care of by a man with (bogus, as it turns out) hoity-toity academic credentials and money to spend on pampering their daughter-and, less nobly, them. For Jenny’s teachers, David was a threat solely based on how he’d affect her decisions about pursuing her own education. But that struggle between staying in school to work toward a meaningful career and letting herself be the darling accessory to her jet-setting man could just as easily have taken place were David a rich boy of her own age.

I saw a screening of the film before Polanski’s arrest had brought questions of statutory rape to the forefront of the news, so I wonder how seeing it now will color the way viewers judge Jenny and David’s relationship, particularly the sexual side. Will it still succeed in maintaining that Lolita -style distance that leaves you slightly skeeved out by how little you mind an older man is preying on a younger woman? Noreen and Willa, you saw it at the same time I did. Were you similarly un-skeeved?