- The Washington Times - Friday, October 30, 2009

Lone Scherfig was not the obvious choice to direct “An Education” — though producers must be glad they chose her. “It’s so British. It’s almost like Jenny is London,” the Danish director says of the central character of the film, which is just her second English-language feature.

“An Education” stars Carey Mulligan as a 1961 London schoolgirl who gets a taste of the high life from a man twice her age and must choose between him and Oxford. With a screenplay adapted by novelist Nick Hornby from Lynn Barber’s memoir, the film is showing up on just about every list of likely best-picture Oscar nominees. Miss Scherfig had to fight to get the job, though she did have a bit of an in.

“Nick Hornby and I have the same agent. And she slipped me the script at an early stage, and I liked it a lot,” Miss Scherfig says on a recent visit to the District. “Then I went to a lot of meetings to convince everyone that I might be able to direct it, even if it’s very English and I’m not.”

Milieu is central to the film — very British distinctions of class play a role even in how the characters speak, let alone what they say. “On the other hand, Nick Hornby and I have a tone in common, and that is maybe more important,” the director says. “It’s hopefully unpretentious and light and still deep and complex. That combination and the mechanics of the comedy in some of the scenes is hard to pull off as a director. ”

She speaks perfect English but considers herself to have a “major language problem” working well in it. “Luckily, the actors do,” she says. “They’re the experts on if the lines taste right and feel right.”

Miss Scherfig, a lovely blonde who looks much younger than her 50 years, made her name with the 2000 Danish film “Italian for Beginners.” It was made in the Dogme 95 style, which calls for natural lighting and locations, no props, no “fake” soundtracks and hand-held cameras. Her last feature, the 2002 Scottish film “Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself,” was made more conventionally, as is “An Education,” though the Dogme influence is still there.

The filmmaker says the important lesson she has taken from the movement is “trying to get some sense of life that you can’t get if you overplan and overshoot.”

“You want to be seduced, like when Jenny is seduced,” she says, explaining how David (played by Peter Sarsgaard) charms both the schoolgirl and the audience. “Whenever he’s around, you’re in the West End and everything starts being fabulous and funny and a little bit hand-held.”

Those scenes were also influenced by French films — fitting, as the hopeful sophisticate Jenny likes to sprinkle French phrases in her speech and spends hours listening to Juliette Greco records. “It’s a seduction act, and sometimes directing is as well,” Miss Scherfig says, though she notes that the film is about much more than the romance. “It’s this strange thing about films that whenever you have a love story that enters the stage, everyone thinks that’s the main plot.”

That seductive style wouldn’t have worked for the scenes in Jenny’s house, a conventionally middle-class home headed by a social-climbing father who first sees Oxford — and then David — as Jenny’s ticket up. “It’s about the acting and putting the camera at the first place and not being cinematic in a way that wouldn’t suit the material,” the director says.

Miss Scherfig is a woman in a male-dominated field, but she says there probably are more female directors in Denmark as a percentage of the field than anywhere else. The reason there aren’t more, she suspects, is something she’s noticed as an educator herself.

“I teach regularly, and I think a lot of girls are just not focused enough on the technical part of being a film director, because it is a quite technically oriented job,” she explains. “The emotion and the psychological sense and all of that is, of course, what makes it an absolutely fantastic job and makes a director good. But a lot of it is standing there, getting the work done, knowing you need that type of microphone for that type of sound. And they underestimate it, sadly.”

She’s writing a script for celebrated Danish director Bille August and then plans to co-write a script with a story that takes place in England and America. She remains based in Copenhagen but will continue working in English.

“When you travel, you see more,” she says.

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