Jenny is a bored schoolgirl in 1960s London. Her parents (more accurately her father) have decided that she is going to Oxford and her life revolves round doing the kinds of things that prepare you for getting into Oxford; studying for exams, learning a musical instrument, “joining in” with clubs and societies, speaking Latin & French. There isn’t much time for the kinds of things she longs for like jazz music, French films, fine foods and high society.
Out of nowhere appears David, 14 years her senior, and charms his way into her life. He and his friends embody all that Jenny has been longing for, they go on trips to Oxford and Paris, buy expensive paintings at auctions and go to late night jazz clubs for “supper”.
Somehow, David also manages to seduce Jenny’s parents despite obviously angling to have sex with their 16 year old daughter. It is not like his intentions are not noticed by her parents and her mother certainly remarks on it at least once. But after putting up token resistance they are more than happy for David to take Jenny away for weekends with only his word that they will be chaperoned by a fictitious aunt.
Jenny is very straightforward about sex and relationships and seems to have a good idea of what she wants and what she is doing but when the inevitable twists come along, everything starts to fall apart. Without going into detail, obviously David has his flaws (other than the obvious one) and as they start to become evident, Jenny is forced to decide between the man she thinks she loves (and the lifestyle she thinks he can provide) and her, or perhaps her father’s, dreams of university education.
The important social point made by the film is that while women were permitted to go to university, they weren’t expected to do anything with their degrees except perhaps teach. Even though Jenny’s parents are set on her going to university, and Oxford at that, they really only want her to find a suitable husband and settle down. So when she realises that she can get a husband and the lifestyle she wants without all the studying and exams Jenny begins to question the idea of devoting a large portion of her childhood to studying when the outcome will be the same anyway.
There are some potentially inspirational women in the film who, at various points, try to help her to make the “right” decisions but they are woefully underused and generally reduced to stereotypes. Emma Thompson is barely given any screen time as the headmistress who wants to support Jenny when she is a pupil and has no time for her at all once she has left. Olivia Williams gets slightly more time as a teacher who is actually willing to help Jenny out once things get tough but again only has a few minutes on screen and it is difficult to work out what her character is about from the short time she has.
The film is very disjointed in places, perhaps deliberately mimicking the turbulence of teenage years. Many key events happen off camera although the build up and the follow up is lovingly covered. This is an interesting way of presenting the consequences of actions by almost completely removing the actions themselves from the story. Unfortunately there are also some major continuity issues in the film (e.g. it is pouring with rain and dark from one angle and sunny from another) which sometimes make it difficult to assess how much time has passed between cuts.
The main characters are played very well. Carey Mulligan is especially good as Jenny managing at the same time to be confident and sassy and childlike and vulnerable. Mostly though she is just fun to watch being continually delighted by all the new experiences she has with her new friends.
Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike play David’s constant companions Danny and Helen and are perfect as the dilettante couple. They always seem to be much better off than anyone else and are always lounging around drinking champagne and generally being sophisticated and giving the impression of not having a care in the world. Helen is a perfect air-head blonde, always claiming not to have a clue about anything but happy to go along for the ride and quite sharp when the situation requires it. She knows a lot more than she lets on most of the time and has all of the best funny lines of the film.
The other main supporting characters are Jenny’s school friends Tina and Hattie. Watching them hang out together at school and in their favourite tea shop in town is a refreshingly simple counterpoint to the more grown up life that Jenny is just discovering. The other girls are jealous of Jenny’s new life but are also slightly wary of it as if vaguely aware that something bad might come of it and instinctively feeling that it is not quite their time to get involved in such things.
There is a somewhat annoying happy ending (for some characters at any rate) which is only given a superficial treatment which gives the viewer little idea of what is being attempted before the results of the endeavour are revealed. Again a victim of the rather severe editing and some jarring continuity issues. Whilst the ending itself is not that bad, the way it is presented as a rushed mishmash and with a sugary clichéd voice over explaining things feels like a significant let down after the rest of a brilliantly crafted film.