Lone Scherfig on An Education

Danish Director <b>Lone Scherfig</b> talks to The Skinny about the myriad challenges of creating her latest period piece, a collaboration with celebrated author Nick Hornby.

Feature by Gail Tolley | 03 Nov 2009

Lone Scherfig, director of An Education, is stifling a yawn. She’s very apologetic, “It’s not that I’m bored” she exclaims, “we had this wonderful party last night. I love Scotland, you know, I shot a film here and it’s so welcoming!” Ah well, there’s nothing like a bit of flattery to get a journalist on your side. Not that Scherfig really need worry about that – her latest film has been gathering stars from critics at a rate of knots. Written by Nick Hornby and starring Peter Sarsgaard, Emma Thompson, Olivia Williams and newcomer Carey Mulligan, An Education is an authentic account of the experiences of 16-year-old schoolgirl Jenny (Carey Mulligan), in early 1960s London. Whilst working hard to fulfil her dream of getting into Oxford she meets the charismatic David (Peter Sarsgaard) who introduces her to a world full of excitement and glamour and challenges her ideas of what life is all about.

It initially might seem an unusual project for the Danish director to have got involved in, especially given the importance and specificity of the time and place of the story (a pre-swinging London). Was it a daunting prospect? “It was a really good challenge” says the director, “and maybe I brought even more enthusiasm because I’m not from there.” Hornby’s script does an excellent job at communicating the staidness of the time period, which was still afflicted with a post-war mentality. Scherfig agrees, “it’s a strange little time pocket and it is closer to what you think of as the fifties rather than the sixties and [it shows] the culture clash between those two periods, I think the film benefits a lot from that inter-cultural drama.” The change on the horizon is hinted at through the character of David, whose more liberal views on life run in contrast with those of Jenny’s parents. Scherfig describes his role as “almost a time machine that can take Jenny into the West End and into the sixties.”

What Scherfig regards as being one of the greatest challenges for her and Hornby was creating a believable relationship between the intelligent but naïve Jenny and her older suitor. “You wouldn’t want to sit and watch a big bad wolf stalking around Little Red Riding Hood. You want something that’s more complex, you want to be seduced.” To the film’s credit, the blossoming of this relationship is portrayed convincingly and seems to have hit a note with audiences. “Both Nick [Hornby] and I have heard similar stories [from people who have seen the film]… about school girls who are falling for men who are out of school a long time ago” she says. But even for those whose school days were somewhat less exciting the central dilemma will still resonate: do you choose to throw yourself into living for the moment and experience the excitement of life or work hard with the hope that the investment pays off in the future? A significant part of the success of An Education is in the intelligent way it has tackled this universal issue making the film relatable for so many of those who see it.

On release in selected cinemas now.