AN EDUCATION is the story of a teenage girl's coming-of-age set in Britain in the early 1960s on the cusp of the strait-laced, post-war period and the free-spirited decade to come.
Directed by award-winning Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig (Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, Italian for Beginners) from a screenplay by Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy) AN EDUCATION was adapted from a memoir by journalist Lynn Barber which originally appeared in the literary magazine Granta.
AN EDUCATION stars Peter Sarsgaard (Boys Don't Cry, Kinsey), Carey Mulligan (Pride & Prejudice, And When Did You Last See Your Father?), Alfred Molina (Spiderman 2, Frida), Dominic Cooper (Mamma Mia!, The History Boys), Rosamund Pike (The Libertine, Die Another Day), Cara Seymour (American Psycho, Gangs of New York), Olivia Williams (Rushmore, The Sixth Sense), Sally Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky, Fingersmith), Matthew Beard (And When Did You Last See Your Father?) and Emma Thompson (Brideshead Revisited, Sense and Sensibility).
The film was shot during the spring of 2008 on location in and around London, Oxford and Paris, and on sound stages at Twickenham Studios.
It's 1961 and attractive, bright 16-year-old schoolgirl, Jenny (Mulligan) is poised on the brink of womanhood, dreaming of a rarefied, Gauloise-scented existence as she sings along to Juliette Greco in her Twickenham bedroom. Stifled by the tedium of adolescent routine, Jenny can't wait for adult life to begin. Meanwhile, she's a diligent student, excelling in every subject except the Latin that her father is convinced will land her a place at Oxford University where she is dreaming of going.
On a rainy day no different to all the others, her suburban life is upended by the arrival of an unsuitable suitor, 30-ish David (Sarsgaard). Urbane and witty, David instantly unseats Jenny's stammering schoolboy admirer, Graham (Beard). To her frank amazement, he even manages to charm her conservative parents Jack (Molina) and Marjorie (Seymour) and effortlessly overcomes any instinctive objections to their daughter's older, Jewish suitor.
Very quickly, David introduces Jenny to a glittering new world of classical concerts and late-night suppers with his attractive friend and business partner, Danny (Cooper) and Danny's girlfriend, the beautiful but vacuous Helen (Pike). David replaces Jenny's traditional education with his own version, picking her up from school in his Bristol roadster and whisking her off to art auctions and smoky clubs.
Under the pretext of an introduction to C.S. Lewis, David arranges to take Jenny on a weekend jaunt to Oxford with Danny and Helen. Later, using an ingenious mixture of flattery and fibbery, he persuades her parents to allow him to take their only daughter to Paris for her 17th birthday. David suggests that his 'Aunt Helen' will once again act as a chaperone. Jack and Marjorie do not know that Jenny has chosen the date and place to lose her virginity.
Paris is all that Jenny imagined it would be, sex with David somewhat less so. On her return to Twickenham, Jenny's school friends are thrilled with her newfound sophistication but her headmistress (Thompson) is scandalised and her English teacher Miss Stubbs (Williams) is deeply disappointed that her prize pupil seems determined to throw away her evident gifts and certain chance of higher education.
Just as the family's long-held dream of getting their brilliant daughter into Oxford seems within reach, Jenny is tempted by another kind of life. Will David be the making of Jenny or her undoing?
ABOUT THE FILM
The extent to which I never asked him questions is astonishing in retrospect - I blame Albert Camus…One of the rules of existentialism as practised by me and my disciples at Lady Eleanor Holles School was that you never asked questions. Asking questions showed that you were naïve and bourgeois; not asking questions showed that you were sophisticated and French. I badly wanted to be sophisticated.
Lynn Barber, An Education
"I'm still not entirely sure what it was about Lynn Barber's piece that had such a strong pull on me, but quite clearly there was one," says screenwriter Nick Hornby. "I read it and gave it to my wife, Amanda Posey who is one of the producers, saying, 'Look, there's a film in here'. She agreed and with Finola Dwyer, her fellow producer started thinking about writers. I was aware that I was becoming envious - 'what do you want that loser for!?' - that sort of thing. So I said I wanted to have a go at it."
"I always thought I must remember at some point to write the whole story of my first boyfriend as I always thought it was extraordinary," says journalist Lynn Barber of her brief memoir. "The only person I'd told was my husband because it was such a long and complicated story - you couldn't really just tell someone casually over dinner or something. It was almost like a secret I'd been carrying around with me."
"Perhaps what drew me to the piece most of all was that Lynn Barber has a very strong, sometimes confrontational voice in her profiles so when I saw that she'd written about her early life, I thought, Ah, I'd like to know about that!" says Hornby.
"People who read her have a lot of interest in her, but Lynn has always kept herself out of her journalism and I was fascinated to find out about this story."
Hornby continues: "It was always going to be a long shot - adapting 10 or 12 pages in a literary magazine - but it really was a labour of love. I felt that I understood Jenny's life; I was a suburban boy and my parents didn't go to university. I liked the richness of the dilemma which is, in some ways, 'life vs. education'. I used to be a teacher and it was something I ended up thinking about quite a lot. I was convinced that I could write a screenplay that would amplify Lynn's piece and make it interesting cinematically."
Describing the period in which AN EDUCATION is set, all of the filmmakers are quick to point out that Britain hadn't actually started swinging in 1961. Four years on from Prime Minister Harold Macmillan's claim that 'most of our people have never had it so good', the average English family continued to lead buttoned-up, thrifty lives.
Preoccupied as they were with changing social and sexual mores, most people were in no hurry to embrace them.
"Every time people talk about the Sixties I want to scream," says Barber. "The Sixties didn't actually start until around '63 or '64. It was still pretty drab before that."
Hornby quotes Philip Larkin's, 'Annus Mirabilis': Sexual intercourse began in nineteen sixty-three… Between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles' first LP.
"For me, one of the points of the film and one of the attractions of the setting was that in 1962, we were still stuck in post-war austerity Britain," says Hornby. "At the time, England was an extremely insular country, quite a poor country. The Second World War made America and their 50s - those big cars and the rock 'n' roll - were a product of doing well. Over there, it was all about Cadillacs. Here in Britain, we were still waiting for a bus."
"I previously made a film which took place in Denmark in 1957 so I know something about the fear of excess, the shadow of the war and the very simple fantasy lives that people led then," says director Lone Scherfig. "But of course, I didn't know London so I was cautious, careful to get everything right. I was watching carefully to make sure that anyone who wasn't English or from Twickenham or 16 years old in 1962 could understand what was going on. We tried to really get the flavour of the time because, to a certain extent, we all believed that the story could only take place then if audiences were expected to identify with it now."
"It's very hard for us now to realise how close together things happened. If you look back from now to the late 80s, for example, it seems incredibly recent times to those of us of a certain age," says Hornby. "That's the distance between this period and the beginning of the Second World War. We had rationing into the mid-50s; it was very hard to travel abroad because of currency regulations, very little variety of food was available - there were so many things we didn't have in this country." Carey Mulligan who stars as suburban schoolgirl Jenny recognises that the journey of her character, although based on Barber's real-life experience, can be seen as a metaphor for the period: "As well as being a coming-of-age story for Jenny, it's a coming-of-age story for the Sixties," she says. "Everyone said, oh, you're doing a Sixties film! I said, no, it's not flower power and stuff; it's before that. So they said, what happened before that? And I replied, Not much!"
"Jenny's parents, Jack and Marjorie, are very much a product of their time," says Hornby. "But Jenny is just beginning to chafe against it and David is the perfect conduit - somebody to lead her out of the '50s and into the '60s. It's almost as if the 'Swinging Sixties' are arriving in Jack and Marjorie's kitchen in Twickenham a few years before they arrive in anyone else's," says Hornby.
"We're right at that moment when the door is just being pushed open," says designer Andrew McAlpine. "We've stopped having to use coupons and we're just starting to become ourselves again. The mum and dad in our film know something is about to change but they don't know what it's going to be; they use their daughter as a conduit to understanding the future. And that future, as we know now, was pretty astonishing."
"The mentality of the time was very Cold War, trapped in a rather narrow view of life: work, home and that was it," says Alfred Molina who plays Jenny's father, Jack Mellor. A minor civil servant whose admirable ambition to better his daughter's life has become an all-consuming obsession, Jack was raised in the belt-tightening years immediately after the war and he struggles to emerge into a new era.
"Everything was grey ," says Molina. "And then, into Jack's monochromatic world comes this rather exotic figure, David. It's a bit like a pigeon coop into which a peacock suddenly arrives, this colourful, slightly scary figure."
"To me, beginning around the time of the arrival of the Pill, it's as if a bowstring has been pulled all the way back, preparing for an explosion of everything that's been pent up for so long," says American actor Peter Sarsgaard who plays David, Jenny's older suitor. "The people are starved for fun and loads of them are about to have it. And they are going to have it without caring about any rules. There's something about David that's like that - he needed to have waited about eight years and then he would have had tons of fun."
The cast and their characters
"The way that the character of David was originally written about in Lynn's piece, it would perhaps have been harder to persuade a cinema audience that this was a relationship that made sense," says Nick Hornby. "Quite rightly, Lone wanted to soften that relationship, to take some of the edges off David and make a proper connection between the characters in a way that would sustain an audience's attention and sympathy."
"Each actor is in some ways the lawyer for their character - they see the script from their point of view," says Lone Scherfig. "My job is to see that but also to see it from the audience's point of view." Sarsgaard was able to leave aside any judgement of his character and his actions.
For Carey Mulligan, 22 years old at the time of shooting, the idea of playing a 16 year-old initially inspired a degree of panic. "I was worried about coming off as a 22 year-old just pretending to be a teenager. Then I thought about what I was like at 16 and I really wasn't that different. I imagined that I'd had had a higher voice and been really giggly all the time, but I wasn't. The only thing that changes between being 16 and being a little bit older is that when you're younger, you don't realise that you can hurt people by what you say and you're less able to put a lid on things; you're less able to measure yourself." Read more
ABOUT THE CREW
LONE SCHERFIG / DIRECTOR
Lone Scherfig was born in Copenhagen and studied film at the University of Copenhagen and the National Film School of Denmark. She has written and directed short films, radio dramas and television series. Lone has collected 22 awards and 11 nominations for her work. Italian for Beginners (the fifth Danish Dogma Film) received a FIPRESCI award and a Silver Bear Jury Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival, and the Robert Award for Best Original Screenplay from the Danish Film Academy. Her features include The Birthday Trip and On Our Own. Her first English language film Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself received the FIPRESCI prize and a host of international film awards. Lone conceived the characters which formed the basis for Andrea Arnold's Cannes Jury Prize winning film Red Road. Lone is a recipient of Denmark's prestigious Carl Dreyer Honorary Award. Her latest feature, Home, screened at the Toronto Film Festival in 2007.
NICK HORNBY / SCREENWRITER & EXECUTIVE PRODUCER
Nick Hornby is the award-winning author of five international best-selling books that have served as a rich seam of inspiration for film-makers: Fever Pitch (two adaptations; the first from a screenplay by Hornby starring Colin Firth, the second directed by the Farrelly brothers and starring Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon), High Fidelity (directed by Stephen Frears with John Cusack and Jack Black), About A Boy (directed by the Weitz brothers, starring Hugh Grant, Rachel Weisz and Toni Collette), How to Be Good (in development at Miramax, produced by Laura Ziskin) and A Long Way Down (optioned by Initial Film / Johnny Depp) in addition to three collections of non-fiction. His works have been translated into 34 languages.
Hornby's latest novel for teenagers, Slam, was published in October 2007 in the UK and the US, debuting at #1 on the New York Times Best Seller list for children's fiction; it is was then published internationally in 2008. He is currently adapting Slam for film with DNA Films and An Education's Amanda Posey producing, as well as working on his new novel.
ABOUT LYNN BARBER
Known for her dry wit and frank analysis of her interviewees, Lynn Barber is an award-winning British journalist currently writing for the Observer. Several collections of her interviews have been anthologised as Mostly Men and Demon Barber.
Born 1944, in Bagshot, England, she read English Literature at Oxford, worked for Penthouse magazine for seven years, then for the Sunday Express, Independent on Sunday, Vanity Fair, Sunday Times, Daily Telegraph and The Observer. In addition to the two collections of interviews, her books include a sex manual, How to Improve Your Man in Bed, and a survey of Victorian popular natural history writers, The Heyday of Natural History. An Education is based on a memoir she wrote for the quarterly magazine, Granta. It will be published by Penguin in An Education and After later this year.
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