October 26, 2009 / 10:53 PM / 9 years ago

"Education" earns good grades as Oscar race begins

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - A mere three months before Oscar nominations are unveiled, the British coming-of-age drama “An Education” is one of the first of this year’s crop of contenders to garner serious buzz.

It’s got that combination Academy members love: critical acclaim (90% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) and promising box office business.

The Sony Pictures Classics release has earned almost $1 million after three weekends in limited release, and adds theaters in the coming weeks.

Lone Scherfig, a Danish native whose credits include “Italian for Beginners” and the suicide-themed drama “Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself,” directed “An Education” from British novelist Nick Hornby’s (“About a Boy”) adaptation of a magazine memoir by journalist Lynn Barber.

Newcomer Carey Mulligan, 24, stars as a studious 16-year-old London schoolgirl who falls for the worldly charms of an older man, played by Peter Sarsgaard. Semi-spoiler alert: He’s not quite who we think he is.

When Scherfig read Hornby’s third-draft screenplay three years ago, she admitted to being “completely seduced” by Sarsgaard’s character, David.

“There is an element in this film where you feel hurt in a way when you’ve seen it,” Scherfig said.

It really has to do with the moviegoer being seduced — just as Mulligan’s Jenny is.

“We don’t want a main character who’s like that. And that’s how the film changes,” Scherfig said.

“It’s about values and choices in life and the importance of finding the way you want to live. In Jenny’s case, finding out that she wants an education for her own sake and to quench her appetite for art and books and for people who know ‘lots about lots,’ as she says.”

Scherfig had only $8 million with which to work, but it was enough to cover 6-1/2 weeks of filming in spring 2008, mostly in London and Oxford.

“It’s not that big a film, and it’s all shot on location,” she said. “A lot of the scenes are just two people in bed or three people at a table.”

She needed to film out of sequence because with such stars as Emma Thompson, Alfred Molina and Rosamund Pike playing small roles, schedules had to be adjusted to meet their availability.

The shoot was particularly hard on Mulligan, whose naive schoolgirl blossoms into an Audrey Hepburn-type beauty. If all Mulligan’s younger scenes could have been filmed together, she could have stayed in character before progressing to her new look and style for Jenny’s more mature scenes.

Happily, there was enough in the budget to shoot the scene in which Jenny visits her dream city.

“Our last shooting day was in Paris. It was my birthday and I finally got to shoot the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame,” Scherfig said.

Scherfig could afford only a day and a half of hand-held shooting, and she knew it had to look like postcard Paris. “It suited the film to get that New Wave feel to the Paris she’s dreaming about and then sees,” the director said.

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