Educating Carey: Lone Scherfig's '60s tale grooms a new movie star

As a general rule, stars are not born full-formed, ready to entice the masses, but it does happen once in a blue moon. Star-gazers can now point to Carey Mulligan in An Education, the British sleeper and Sundance sensation by Denmark’s Lone Scherfig, opening Oct. 9 from Sony Pictures Classics.

Some critics have likened Mulligan’s emergence into the front ranks of young actresses to stumbling across Audrey Hepburn for the first time in Roman Holiday. Comparisons are odious, but this one’s not far off the mark in terms of charm, wit, intelligence and humanity brought to bear on a character by a complete unknown.

Well, maybe not a complete unknown. Like the embryonic Hepburn, Mulligan had a modest trickle of bit roles in feature films—plus the extra edge of episodic BBC TV—before finding this straight shot to stardom. And she came prepared—from the stage.

Last fall, when the Royal Court production of The Seagull starring Kristin Scott Thomas was exported to Broadway, Mulligan recreated her acclaimed portrayal of Nina, the starry-eyed innocent casually destroyed by an older man. Her entrance on The Great White Way was a sunburst of youthful exuberance, startlingly reminiscent of the first sighting of Hepburn’s Natasha in the King Vidor-directed War and Peace.

For director Scherfig, it was the sort of talent that is readily apparent at first glance, and she tapped Mulligan for the tall order of Jenny, a 16-going-on-17 London lass who’s again doomed by her love for an older man. Their relationship constitutes the education in An Education, which Nick Hornby adapted from Lynn Barber’s memoir.

There were a couple of hundred contenders for the Jenny role—all with audition tapes—and star-spotter Scherfig diligently pored over the applications. “Carey was the one I liked the best the very first time I saw everything,” the Danish director confesses with a measure of pride, “but, of course, you narrow it down to fewer and fewer people just to make sure that every stone is turned—is that the expression? I always liked Carey the most. I could see that she had Jenny’s fragility and strength.”

Once the cameras started turning, Scherfig’s confidence in her selection grew. “After about two weeks, I got more ambitious on her behalf. I can remember thinking that, if she is going to be in every scene and she’s doing this well now, I should try to make the portrait even more varied—see how far she can take the character and it still remain consistently that character. When I see what has resulted, I’m really happy because it means that my instinct was right—that I have done a good job.”

An Oscar-caliber performance is proof enough of that, but if more is required, one has only to point to the stellar career that has fallen into place for Mulligan since An Education. Michael Mann and Jim Sheridan snatched her up for small roles in Public Enemies and Brothers, respectively. Then she and Keira Knightley co-starred in Never Let Me Go, and in Rowan Joffe’s Brighton Rock she has the star-spot all to herself. Now, Oliver Stone has signed her up to play Michael Douglas’ estranged daughter in Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps. The ex-unknown appears to be off and running.

“It’s just going to be really interesting to see what she’ll do from now on,” ponders her discoverer. “She’s very young, very versatile, and I think she has good taste and makes good choices—so she will hopefully keep looking for something better.

“Yes, I’m very proud of what Carey has done—Nick Hornby, too. He says never mind that he has written a pile of novels because, from now on, people will just remember him as ‘the man who wrote the script for that film that had Carey Mulligan in it.’”

An Education is not only a change of pace for Hornby, it’s a change of gender as well. Previously, he has specialized in male-motivated stories—High Fidelity, About a Boy and Fever Pitch have all made successful films—but he was persuaded to switch to a feminine perspective by the producer of this new picture—his wife, Amanda Posey.

It’s an age-old coming-of-age story set in the drab ’burbs of London in 1961—the very year, it might be remembered, when a 16-year-old Susannah York was going much the same route with Kenneth More in the movie version of Rumer Godden’s The Greengage Summer (bluntly redubbed for these shores Loss of Innocence).

To camouflage the familiar terrain of this unremarkable plot, Hornby has thrown a strong sociopolitical overlay over the proceedings. “I think what Nick wrote, what he saw in Barber’s piece, was this congruent between the period and the main character—how much London was coming of age the way Jenny was. In a way, London’s the main character. You have to feel that right after the film ends, it’s going to psychedelia and Beatles and mind-altering drugs.” Next stop: “Swinging London.”

England at the time of this story was rife with the wariness and hope that both followed its long gray crawl from World War II. The only chance for social mobility in its rigid class structure—the one route out of the dreary middle-class grove—was to secure a proper education. And this is Jenny’s game plan—till love comes along.

The fact that Mulligan can project such a pronounced air of innocence in this day and age was half the battle. Her Jenny is a straight-A type—save for Latin, which her conservative dad (Alfred Molina, in a fine and funny turn) believes will keep her out of Oxford. Actually, the thing that will keep her out of Oxford is her early-blooming attraction to David (Peter Sarsgaard), a thirty-something knight-in-shining-sports-car who sweeps her off her feet with Paris nights and sophisticated friends (Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike), making Oxford seem a very remote option—despite the loud protestations of her teacher (Olivia Williams) and her stern headmistress (Emma Thompson). Such thinking pretty much makes Jenny a charter member of the “Smart Women, Foolish Choices” club—then, she assesses her happy ending.

“One of the reasons why Carey is so good is that she’s surrounded by really strong players,” Scherfig observes. “It was inspirational for her that after she had finished a couple of days with one of those, a new one came in. She would have six Alfred Molina days and two Olivia Williams days. You could tell that each of them would start out thinking, ‘I’m the experienced one. I’ll help her. I’ll support her.’ Then, after a while, they got inspired by her, and that’s why they’re so good. It is a great quality in an actor to have the ability to make the whole package good.”

As memoirs go, An Education is sort of “the before picture” of Lynn Barber’s life. “More of that story comes out in a book this fall,” notes Scherfig. “She is a journalist for the [London] Observer—quite a feared journalist and very respected. She is known to not trust people, to interview them thoroughly. One of her reasons for writing this memoir is her conclusion that ‘because of David, I am the kind of journalist that I am—someone who never trusts what they see or have been told.’

“But our Jenny—the Barber that is in the film—is more lighthearted, I think, and she’s sweeter in a way. Barber, I think, is very sweet now. There’s a British television show called ‘Grumpy Old Women,’ where Germaine Greer and a number of other women are supposed to just sit and badmouth themes in life. Lynn Barber is on it, but they always cut her out because she’s simply not grumpy enough.”

After trying out various other titles, the filmmakers opted to stick with the original. “An Education is the right title for the film—and it was a good key for me as a director,” Scherfig contends. “Every time I would talk to one of the actors I would discuss that person’s relationship to education and think of that as an access to each of the characters. These people are driven by whether they have an education or not, and if they have it whether they used it. Jenny’s parents are good examples of not.”

Another have-not is the otherwise slick and persuasive David, played by Sarsgaard, the lone American in the cast. “He was on board before I was. In fact, a lot of my attraction to the project was that he was going to be in the film. He’s the best actor I’ve ever worked with, I think—so layered, sensitive, intelligent and courageous.”

Throughout the film, the audience wants David to be what he appears to be. “But he is for real,” the director contends. “He is just someone who wants the life you can only have if you have an education. We made him less of a sociopath than he could have been, and we emphasized he’s not that sexually attracted to her. He’s almost relieved when she says she wants to wait until she is 17 before they have sex. It’s more important she sees him as the man he wished he were. Peter always said he had no problem defending David because he liked him. If the audience isn’t seduced the way Jenny is seduced, you’d just sit there and feel terrible all through the film.”

Interestingly, and ironically, Sarsgaard and Mulligan followed the film by reprising their destructive relationship in a Chekovian framing on Broadway. When a new Trigorin was needed to take The Seagull to New York, Mulligan recommended Sarsgaard.

Freshly turned 50, Scherfig was two years old at the time of her film, but you’d not suspect that from how authentically nuanced it is. “I just did my bit and listened to people and asked for help. [Take a bow, production designer Andrew McAlpine and costumer Odile Dicks-Mireaux.] I did much more research than I would have done.

“England is such a strong culture. The way that people live and behave and the class system—the seeds of that postwar period—that is not something that you could do without, first of all, really being interested in it and also being interested in doing it correctly. I think that it’s much more correct than anything I have done before.”

An Education is Scherfig’s second English-language film. Her first, Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself (2002), plucked off some prizes at international film festivals, as did Italian for Beginners (2000), the best-known of her Danish quartet of films. The latter was done true to the precepts of Dogme 95, Denmark’s Spartan no-frills approach to film realism—#12 in that short-lived series—and is considered the most accessible of the lot. Scherfig claims that following the ten-point manifesto was not confining.

“I learned a lot. There are elements of it that I will always use, no matter what I do. When you see An Education, there is so little Dogma in it. It’s more about the innocence that Dogme 45 has—this insisting on something that is not phony.”

And how will she follow An Education? “I’m focusing a lot on my seventh film because I was always told that when a director makes the seventh film, then everything is right. And I’m happy I have, hopefully, a very long career ahead of me.”

The director can’t say right now what that lucky seventh film will be. “I’m writing a film for myself at the moment and one for Bille August. Hopefully, I’ll shoot in the spring.”

Scherfig is no stranger to screenwriting. Far from it. “Most of my movies, I’ve written myself—or with somebody else. An Education is the first script I’ve done where I’ve had nothing to do with the script. But, of course, Nick listened. I did have some comments, and he did do a couple of drafts after I was involved. I felt that the most important part of my job as a director was that the script survive the production.”