You’d think that the coming-of-age tale about a girl in her teens had run out of juice. But then, along comes “An Education” to revitalize the genre. The darling of this year’s Sundance, which instantly put its radiant young star Carey Mulligan on the Oscar radar, “An Education” is based on journalist Lynn Barber’s tell-all piece about a youthful affair circa 1961, before “the ’60s” took hold. Directed by Lone Scherfig, the film, as promised by the title, recounts the sentimental education of 16-year-old Jenny, an excellent student enamored of all things French and impatient to tango with adult life. A romance with 30ish sophisticate David (Peter Sarsgaard) offers the glamor and culture missing from the drab world of her parents and the Twickenham ‘burbs, but risks derailing Jenny’s dream of a place at Oxford.
No small part of the film’s sparkle comes from the screenplay and witty, literate dialogue furnished by Nick Hornby. A bestselling novelist — with a second gig in the world of rock — Hornby is most visible stateside for the screen adaptations of his books “High Fidelity” and “About a Boy,” which take a comic but empathic look at the dilemmas of floundering manchildren. But in “An Education,” Hornby, a modest, forthcoming fellow, has had no trouble inhabiting the inner world of a teenage heroine who sounds both charmingly herself and like a voice from a vanished, straitlaced era when women faced limited options. From Barber’s original ten-page essay, Hornby has conjured an entire world. Adding a subtext of female empowerment, he also created such key characters as Peter’s glam friends (Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike), who seduce Jenny almost more than does Peter, while capturing the language and attitudes of a pocket in time before Carnaby Street and the Beatles blew it all wide open.
Coming-of-agers are like a tired old workhorse. What made you feel you could separate this film from the pack? Is that a mean question?
No, it’s not a mean question and I’m not sure [laughing] I ever felt I could do that. The beauty of the film is that everybody’s on top of their game, so you’ve got half a chance, whatever the material. We were helped immeasurably by Carey. She, by herself — the charm and maturity of her performance, helps to separate the film from the pack. And the setting felt sufficiently different so that it would not seem like something you’ve seen a million times before.
What attracted you to this project?
I found the original material — an essay in Granta — and told my wife [Amanda Posey, producer of “An Education”], “Look, there’s a film in here.” I liked it tonally — it was painful and funny — and I didn’t know much about that particular time, because it was the early 1960s and didn’t know the period’s underworld bohemia. The rest of Carey’s world I recognized, because it’s not so different from the way I grew up as a suburban kid who was frightened of missing out on the city. I feel a lot of identification with that character.
Is this story and period going to speak to today’s audience?
You don’t have to have lived in that time to understand the dilemmas. In some ways, the rules of period drama help because there are boundaries placed on conduct that are clearer than they are now — it’s easier to see when characters are transgressing. And it seems to have spoken quite deeply to teen girls who have seen the movie. Just about every woman I know has come out with a story about a guy in a car looking to pick her up.
You found that literal a closeness?
Smart pretty girls of any generation, the story’s always the same.
I have a slight problem with David, Sarsgaard’s character. He was pretty smarmy, like when he asks to look at her topless. And at the screening I attended, the combination of his unattractive aspects plus the fact that he’s Jewish struck some viewers as anti-Semitic. Do you anticipate any flack over that?
That’s interesting. One of the things that is quite clear in [Barber’s] piece is that Britain was anti-Semitic at the time, and Peter’s an outsider and has to use whatever tools he has at his disposal. I hope the movie makes it clear that it’s other people’s reactions that are anti-Semitic. One of the things that drew me to the piece was there’s a charm in the guy, yet he’s clunky as well. So he wasn’t just a smooth predator.