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AN EDUCATION – INSIDER BRIEFING

The stars and filmmakers talk about turning a memoir of a teenager in 1961 London into one of the most enjoyable films of the year. Editor’s Advice: Do NOT read this article until you’ve seen the film; you’ll get a lot more out of both.

“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.”

"like a secret I’d been carrying around with me"

“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.”

"changing social and sexual mores"

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.”

"the flavour of the time"

“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.

"a bit like a pigeon coop into which a peacock suddenly arrives"

“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 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. “When David is with Jenny, it’s as though he were experiencing everything for the first time again – ‘It IS a nice car, isn’t it? Paris IS a great city, isn’t it?’ It’s not about sex, it’s about life. He’s not a pervert; he’s just a guy who wants to live life to the
most.”

“Peter has a lovely, childlike quality as David,” says co-star Dominic Cooper who plays David’s friend and business partner, Danny. “He’s kind of giggly. There’s a hint of menace but mostly, he seems to be a completely trustworthy, very giggly guy.” Peter Sarsgaard and Carey Mulligan decided that he would have to charm her into the car in the scene of David and Jenny’s first meeting; she would not do what was written for her character in the script unless he actually succeeded in persuading her to do it. He did.

"seductive in a subtle way"

“David is very seductive in a subtle way and part of my job was to seduce the audience the way he seduces Jenny,” says Lone Scherfig. “If you knew what was happening behind his very nice façade, the story would be too predictable. You have to feel for him, you have to like him. I found him very interesting and the worse he got, the more I liked him.”

“I liked the idea that David is a taste of things to come,” says Hornby. “He is the product of a classless society, in a way. He wants the good things in life, not just money and being flash; he’s interested in what’s going on - he wants to listen to music, to read, to watch movies. I think he’s more switched on than you might think
at first glance.”

“David not only tests the parameters of Jenny’s father’s life but also his prejudices,” says Alfred Molina. “There was a great deal of racism in post-War British society which permeated through all the classes - it wasn’t just upper class twits, it was everybody. Despite the horrors we were aware of by then, of what had happened in
the camps in Europe, there was still a huge amount of anti-Semitism in Britain. And all of these things get touched on in Nick Hornby’s script - everything is placed in context.”

“Playing this man who feels like an outsider, someone who is pretending to be someone they’re not, that’s exactly what I was doing the whole time on set,” says Sarsgaard. “I was trying to do exactly the same thing my character was trying to do: pass myself off as someone else.”

"you don’t realise that you can hurt people by what you say"

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.”

“Carey is spooky,” says Nick Hornby. “I hadn’t seen her and Finola said they were going to cast this girl Carey Mulligan. I said, how old is she and they said 21 or 22 and I was like, oh, okay, that’s it then, you’ve ruined the whole thing because she’s supposed to be 16. I can see why you’d do it but it’s not going to work. And then when you see her in the schoolgirl scenes, you think Hey! You can’t have someone sleeping with her! That’s indecent! It’s sort of freakish that she’s able to play a 16 year-old girl and you never doubt for a moment that she is that age. And yet, with a bit of makeup and a different hairstyle, she becomes Audrey Hepburn.”

Mulligan found that the return to wearing a school uniform and filming in a classroom helped her not only to look like a teenager again, but to think like one, too: “I felt horrid in the school uniform; the crew started treating me like a 12 year-old,” she says. “They actually stopped swearing in front of me. During a scene in the classroom, I started to think ‘God, this is SO boring!’ I realised just in time that I’d fallen back into schoolgirl mode and I needed to snap out of it.”

Published October 22, 2009

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REVIEWS

An Education
Jenny (Carey Mulligan) lives in suburban Twickenham in 1961 London, with her square parents Jack (Alfred Molina and Marjorie (Cara Seymour), approaching her 17th birthday and an all important exam which should get her into Oxford. But when she meets the older, sophisticated and cashed up David (Peter Sarsgaard), her attention is taken by the sophisticated lifestyle he shows her, and even her father relaxes his insistence that she get a University education. She is, however, getting an education in the ways of the world and when David has one too many surprises for her, Jenny’s life turns upside down and inside out.
Australian theatrical release: October 22, 2009 (previews Oct 16 – 18)








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