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About a Girl: An Education

A star is born in Lone Scherfig's wonderful coming-of-age story An Education, as the brilliant newcomer Carey Mulligan makes Nick Hornby's screenplay sing.

An Education

Dear reader, you will undoubtedly hear these words a million times before the Oscars bow in February: newcomer Carey Mulligan is a revelation in An Education.

Here's the thing, however—it's absolutely true. In Lone Scherfig's sensitively wrought film, with an adapted screenplay from journalist and writer Nick Hornby, Mulligan begins as a schoolgirl, 16-year-old Jenny, the great Oxford hope of her parents' (including Alfred Molina) eye, whose greatest desire is to get to Paris and live a little; until then, she has her Gauloises and her Juliette Greco records in her stifling suburb of Twickenham. Until she meets the thirtysomething David (Peter Sarsgaard), who introduces her to a glamorous new world of culture, complete with two gorgeous friends, Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (a wonderful Rosamund Pike, playing dippy with such intelligence). With this temptation, Jenny is steered off course, and Oxford becomes a question mark.

It isn't very often that audiences get to see a bittersweet coming-of-age story that is so indelibly about a girl, where her hopes, desires, dreams, and fierce intelligence are paramount to the film. Mulligan takes this rare gem of a role and becomes this character, morphing from a woman to a girl depending on the scene, her quicksilver rush of emotions reflected on her expressive face. This story goes beyond being an actors' showcase, however, and has something to say about the shifting mores of stodgy England on the cusp of the swinging 60s. At a recent roundtable, we talked with Scherfig (blonde, Danish, subtly, Scandinavian-ly funny) and Hornby (quick-witted, and with a wonderful round head) about casting, Dogme 95 and low budgets, and how journalist Lynn Barber, whose ten-page memoir in Granta sparked Hornby's screenplay, felt about the adaptation.

How did you go about casting Carey in the role of Jenny?

Lone Scherfig: She was just the best and even better than you could've hoped for. There are so many girls of that generation—and there are many good ones—so you are completely spoiled for choice. But Carey could not only do the part (she's easy to direct), I think the way she says lines and the way she talks is just interesting and classy—to use a word I haven't used about her yet—I think she has good taste. That makes it easier, because I like what she does and that's what makes it a good starting point for making each other better: her making me a better director and my making her a better actress.

Nick Hornby: I joked with Amanda [Posey] and Finola [Dwyer], the producers, before the film was made, because you can never tell what critics will say or not say, but one line you will never ever hear from critics is, "I loved this movie but that girl was terrible." That was all we had, and we absolutely relied on Carey being as good as she is.

The whole ensemble was really wonderful—

NH: They're like a band to me now. Once I've seen it a few times it really feels as though people step up and take solos and step back again. They all have an empathetic understanding of each other like a rhythm section. I think they play beautifully off each other, which is such a tribute to Lone. It's not just Carey's film in an interesting way. She's in every single scene, but she doesn't just flatten out other people. She's incandescent that you just don't notice everyone else. She's a generous actor.

LS: They all get their moment. And they're all just brilliant actors. There are many brilliant actors in that country, and it's such a treat to direct them. They are so well prepared and they have such strong discipline when it comes to scripts—that's the tradition they come from, and they're super professional. The access to their work comes from the script and research rather than emotions, which is more the American approach and what I'm used to working with. I don't think things get less touching and emotional just because they're professional. They do a proper job and I love that.

The writing, too, it has such clarity.

NH: I have been staggered by the number of women I've spoken to who have a story about a guy and a car. Almost to the extent of drawing up at the bus stop and getting in. It sort of brought them out of the woodwork.

Lone, how did your experience as a Dogme 95 [the Danish avant-garde filmmaking movement that had rules about "purity"] director (for 2000's Italian for Beginners) shape the making of this film?

LS: I do like getting a sense of life to things that Dogme, or having been in Dogme-land, makes easier. I think [Dogme] suits humor, since you are sometimes willing to let the control go a little bit and be more open to what happens during the show. I tried to influence the actors to really listen to one another, to speak with an element of unpredictability within every moment of a film. Something that I really loved about Dogme was the idea that you had to consider obstacles gifts. That if something doesn't go where you want it to you just have to make it work for the film. Having said all of that, this is the only film I've ever done where I've been most faithful to the script and the film looks a lot like the script. I didn't have the possibility of taking it as far in that direction as I might have wanted to. It may be a better film because I didn't. But because it was a Nick Hornby script and because I was working in England with producers who were more hands-on than I've experienced, I didn't do some things that I might've liked to do.

I don't want to complain because I'm very happy with the film, but Dogme is so much fun for the director, and this job wasn't about having fun, it was about that you [gestures to the roundtable] should be entertained. [We laugh.]

I think all good art comes from taking risks, and the risk here for me was trusting that the script could carry a film and that the seduction of the script was strong enough to carry a plot that's not that—

NH: substantive—

LS: mindblowing—

NH: It's not that unfamiliar.

An Education

Why is the character of David Jewish? Is he Jewish in the memoir?

NH: First of all, he was [Jewish] in the memoir. Why I kept him Jewish was that, in my childhood, there were memories of discovering that an awful lot of my elders and betters were anti-Semitic and racist in various ways. I realized that it had been part of Britain's cultural history at that point. The other thing that interested me was the mention of the name Peter Rachman, which is touched on very very slightly in the movie. He was a kind of big Jewish landlord gangster of the late 50s and early 60s and his treatment of his tenants was so despicable that it resulted in a change of the law. We still use the word rachmanism for a kind of particularly exploitative landlord. There was this sort of Jewish gangster underclass at the end of the 50s, beginning of the 60s that I've never seen on film before.

When Jack (Alfred Molina, as Jenny's dad), stumbles in the first scene it's because he's called out on his own anti-Semitism and he's defensive and panicky about it. That puts him on a bad foot and it's, "Off you go David, go to the concert with my daughter." He's flustered and off his guard. It seemed to me not only interesting and indicative of the times but useful in terms of bouncing people's attitudes off each other to put plots in motion.

Who exactly is Lynn Barber? Doesn't she have a funny, very English reputation as a somewhat controversial journalist?

NH: [Coming up with an American equivalent] I put Kitty Kelley [a journalist best known for her "poison pen" biographies of luminaries like Frank Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor] to you.

She's not very well liked.

NH: We're not talking about well liked, we're talking about famous. Lynn is well known for being a very good journalist, first of all, but she has achieved some notoriety because a few of her profiles of particularly unhelpful celebrities have been quite devastating. And funny. I had met her at a couple of parties. She's also on TV a bit in England now in a show called Grumpy Old Women.

It was this ten-page essay in Granta, and I dont think she expected necessarily that it would become a film. It was an odd thing to happen. We talked to her throughout the process of it.

Did Lynn ever give you her thoughts about the movie? Did she think it was true to her experience?

NH: It's funny, because I had the same experience as her: my first book was made into a movie that changed a lot, which was Fever Pitch, which had Colin Firth in it. I knew in advance what she would experience, because the first time she saw it she would think it had nothing to do with her. If the tablecloth is different, if the mum doesn't look like your mum, if the character does one thing you didn't do in real life, than it's separate from you. Really, it takes two or three viewings to see that this story is you, it could only be so close to your own, but it's not as if you've lost authorship of it. I think she's gone back now, yes, to seeing the movie and thinking it was her.

An Education
opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, October 9, with more theaters to come. It is an official selection of the 2009 Doha Tribeca Film Festival, where it will have its Middle Eastern premiere.



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