What is life really all about? That’s the question which troubles Jenny – played brilliantly by Carey Mulligan – when she finds her life being pulled in two different directions. She is a very bright 16-year-old schoolgirl who is destined for Oxford University, but who longs to be sophisticated and is entranced by everything French. When she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), he seems to her to embody nearly everything she longs for. Though is not French, he is charming, witty, urbane. He introduces her to a world of fun and glamour and excitement, which contrasts starkly with her stifling middle-class existence in suburban Twickenham. David sweeps her off her feet, and the pre-planned trajectory of her life is thrown radically off-course.
In 1961, Britain was still an intensely strait-laced and conservative society, but it was also a time of change which would result in the swinging sixties by the middle of the decade. Four years after Prime Minister Harold Macmillan declared, ‘we have never had it so good,’ the middle classes had high hopes for the future. Jenny’s parents, Jack (Alfred Molina) and Marjorie (Cara Seymour), are typical of those whose aspirations were bound up with the educational success of their children. Having lived through the austerity years of the war and its aftermath, Jack and Marjorie’s world is frugal, modest and restrained. They have no expectation of anything more in their own lives, but see that things can be very different for Jenny: she has the world at her feet.
This pressure on Jenny and the hopes for her future undoubtedly contribute to her sense of wanting more than life currently offers. Equally significant is her love of French culture. She reads Camus, listens to Juliette Greco, drops French phrases into conversations and dreams of Paris. To her it is the essence of sophistication and glamour. Jenny equates it with the good life and with freedom. And she has imbibed the thinking of the French existentialists (or a version of it, at least), who stressed the importance of authenticity, of choosing one’s course rather than having it dictated by others or simply going along with the expectations of society. When David comes into Jenny’s life, her overwhelming impression is that he is someone who lives this out. He is a free agent, doing what pleases him, full of self-confidence and charm.
It is little wonder that David is easily able to seduce Jenny. She is naive, impressionable and desperate for the very things he apparently offers. What is more surprising is that David is able to seduce Jenny’s parents just as easily. But while Jack would have no time for Camus or Sartre, he is as impressionable as his daughter. Although he is, in many ways, satisfied with his modest life, his hopes for Jenny reveal his deep desire for something more, even just a touch of glamour. David senses this and expertly plays on it, offering the very things which Jack and Marjorie dream of. Jenny, Jack and Marjorie all see in David exactly what they want to see, and they don’t stop to ask questions or to wonder about those things which don’t quite add up.
Lynn Barber, on whose memoir Nick Hornby based the screenplay, says:
I blame Albert Camus . . . One of the rules of existentialism as practised by me and my disciples at Lady Eleanor Holles School was that you never asked questions. Asking questions showed that you were naive and bourgeois; not asking questions showed that you were sophisticated and French. I badly wanted to be sophisticated.
For Jenny to make this mistake as an adolescent on the verge of adulthood is understandable. For her parents to make the same mistake, though not under the influence of Camus, is a failure of responsibility. When things begin to go wrong, Jenny justly criticises her father for not protecting her, for being just as naive and starry-eyed as she is.
And yet, we are all prone to do exactly the same thing. When we are tempted by something, we see what we want to see and we push down the questions which might trouble us. Or which might help us to see sense. We are all impressionable about some things; we all have dreams or desires and when we think they could be fulfilled it is all too easy to go with the flow, or not think enough about our responsibilities. It is, in fact, a recapitulation of what happened in the Garden of Eden. When the serpent tempted Eve, he offered her something very desirable: freedom and wisdom. These things are not, and were not, wrong in themselves; human beings are created by God to experience such things, but in the context of a relationship with God, not independently of him. As with David, what was being offered was not all that it appeared, and it was based on lies and deception. But the response of Adam and Eve was to ignore the inconsistencies and the voice of conscience and to naively accept the offer at face value. We all do it. When it suits us we suspend our critical faculties. And as Jenny discovers, the consequences can be devastating.