Carey Mulligan in An Education, courtesy of Sony Classics
Based on a Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About A Boy) adaptation of a memoir by Lynn Barber, An Education is a coming-of-age story about a precocious high school student (Carey Mulligan) set in early-sixties London. We talked to director Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners) about the much buzzed-about Ms. Mulligan and the perils and pleasures of postwar youth.
DARRELL HARTMAN: A lot of the buzz for this movie has been focused on the lead actress, Carey Mulligan. What made her right for the role?
LONE SCHERFIG: It’s heartwarming to look at her, and she also pitches things really well–there are no false notes in her performance, and that’s important for a film like this. The comedy in the film is something you get if you want it, but we were not looking for a comedian. We were looking for someone with a low-key acting style who could get Jenny’s innocence and carry a film, who you would be able to identify with.
HARTMAN: She’s got this sparkling, girlish quality. And yet, especially when she speaks, there’s something very adult about her.
SCHERFIG: It’s both. It’s someone who can jump forth and back in time–the way London did, actually. And it’s much easier to communicate with someone who has the intellectual skills that Carey has. She’s bright, and that makes her nice to be around.
HARTMAN: What happened to Lynn Barber, the woman whose experiences this story is based on?
SCHERFIG: She got her education and became a journalist for Penthouse. Less harmony, probably, than our Jenny. Carey’s interpretation is sweeter.
HARTMAN: Jenny has this idea that by hanging out with an older, fun-loving crowd, she’s taking a shortcut to adulthood. She’s ahead of the curve. But it turns out she’s a bit too eager.
SCHERFIG: But some of the shortcuts are right. I mean, it makes absolute sense to go listen to a fantastic orchestra ten minutes away in the West End, rather than the school orchestra down the street. She’s in London! It’s a cultural capital–the world’s largest city, at that point.
HARTMAN: Her key to this world is David, played by Peter Sarsgaard. Tell me about working with him.
SCHERFIG: It was definitely one of the reasons I wanted to do the film. He’s so vulnerable and layered and complex. I’ve never worked with such a good actor in my life. And I don’t think it hurts the film that he’s not British-it just added to his workload.
HARTMAN: Jenny’s teacher (Sally Hawkins) refers to him as a “Mr. Rochester figure,” and there are a couple Jane Austen references. Were you and Nick Hornby thinking a lot about 19th-century social fiction?
SCHERFIG: I remember asking Nick, “Is there a theme there?” He would go, “Well, no, I think it’s a coincidence. It’s just what they read.” It’s not a film full of metaphors and symbolism, but of course when you read it, and when they read read King Lear, you will want it to belong in the package somehow. But it does say something about the intellectual ability of these girls. They know their Shakespeare, but they don’t know when to not get into a sports car with a man.
HARTMAN: You’re Danish. Was it difficult making a film, especially one as literate as this, in English?
SCHERFIG: There’s a security, a precision I have in my own language that I don’t have in English, obviously. But directing is about communicating; it’s not about being eloquent. You have directors who are completely hopeless at talking to people, but the actors will act really well because they want to satisfy this…nerd! And the the language is so rich–I think I know more words in English than in Danish, simply because there are more. So it’s sort of all right if you only know a fourth of them.
HARTMAN: Nicolas Winding Refn is another Danish director who’s working in English now.
SCHERFIG: I used to babysit him! But Nicholas is really, really visual. It’s much less about dialogue and more about tone. He is so talented. He’s going to do Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which is a brilliant choice.
HARTMAN: With Keanu Reeves! But he’s been saying all along that he wants to make Hollywood movies. Do you?
SCHERFIG: If someone asked me to do Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I’d jump straight at it. But if someone asked me to suggest a good director for it, I’d suggest Nicolas. But there’s no comparison; we have totally different fascinations. Thank god there’s space for both of us.
An Education opens October 9.