An Education is a critically acclaimed British drama based on the memoirs of popular, and occasionally controversial, newspaper journalist, Lynne Barber. It tracks a young woman in the 1960s as she goes through a life-changing year – seduced and enthralled by what appears to be a sophisticated older man offering her a glamorous life of artistic and aesthetic indulgence and limited responsibility. It was submitted to the BBFC with a 12A request.
When classifying the film the key issues discussed by examiners were sex/sex references, theme, smoking, discrimination and language. An Education was rated PG-13 in America for ‘mature thematic material involving sexual content, and for smoking’.
There are some moderate sex references in An Education, the strongest being two scenes showing Jenny’s eventual seduction by the man she has fallen in love with, David. In the first, when she finds herself sharing a hotel room with David, she tells him that she will only lose her virginity after she turns 17. He asks 'for a little peek' and so she slides off her nightdress. We only get a view of her back but David is shown smiling at her before he gets up and pulls the straps back up onto her shoulders.
In the second Jenny and David prepare for sex the first time. In the scene he brings a banana into bed to get ‘the messy bit’ over with first – suggesting the fruit is used to break her hymen. In response Jenny puts her face into her pillow and says indignantly, 'I don't want to lose my virginity to a piece of fruit!'. They laugh and she tells him the moment has now gone. They agree it will happen the following day in Paris and she asks him to treat her like an adult. Actual sexual activity takes place off screen and there is only very brief back nudity. There are verbal references to losing one's 'virginity' and to the act being 'painful' and suggestions of David’s infidelity. These can be contained at 12A/12 as BBFC Guidelines state: 'Sex references may reflect what is likely to be familiar to most adolescents but should not go beyond what is suitable for them'.
Examiners also noted that in terms of the film’s tone and overall message, it is actually a cautionary tale covering issues such as sexual development and relationships with older people without being ‘preachy’, and therefore could be seen as well-suited and important for teenage audiences.
More generally, examiners felt the theme of older men who prey on teenage girls is treated very gently, to the extent that David himself is not a one-dimensional baddie but merely a man wrestling with his own demons.
The film is gentle and benign in tone, but the issues were too strong for PG, but only just. It is worth noting that the BBFC will pass a work PG even if the film is not aimed at children or families.
Elsewhere, An Education contained a few uses of mild bad language (for example, 'bastard', 'bloody', 'hell' and a non-sexual use of 'bugger'). These could have been passed at PG.
Examiners also noted that in keeping with the film’s historical setting (Britain in the 1960s) there are also a couple of uses of terms such as 'Negroes' and 'coloured people' and several shots of people smoking. These expressions and behaviour may be outdated now, but reflect common speech at the time the film was set and the language is merely as an illustration of the language and veiled racist attitudes that prevailed at the time. The film as a whole doesn’t condone racism or racist language whatsoever.
An Education was passed 12A with the BBFCinsight ‘Contains moderate sex references’ and the longer version explaining the issues in detail for parents.
The film was selected for National Schools Film Week in 2010.