To see Lone Scherfig's "An Education" is to wonder how a film could have such an unerring instinct for human nature with all its foibles and quirks. To meet the engaging, empathetic Danish director at the Sundance Film Festival, where "An Education" had its premiere Sunday, is to have all those questions answered.
Like its predecessors on Scherfig's resume, "Italian for Beginners" and "Waldo Wants to Kill Himself," "An Education" is a keenly observed film whose log line -- the relationship between Carey Mulligan's 16-year-old British schoolgirl and Peter Sarsgaard's older man in 1961 London -- gives no hint at all about the nuanced and unforeseen pleasures it presents.
Good as is, "An Education" was originally intended to be made by British director Beeban Kidron ("Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason"). When Kidron moved to another project, Scherfig got the call -- with costar Sarsgaard already cast -- because she shares both a sensibility and the same London agent with screenwriter Nick Hornby ("High Fidelity"), who adapted this from a memoir by British journalist Lynn Barber.
"Both Nick and I are quite shy, and we are about sharing the humor and the love for people who are like that with the audience," Scherfig says.
"We want to make people understand them and smile at moments seen in a loving way."
To bring this familiar-sounding story to life in a completely unfamiliar way, Scherfig utilized the aesthetic principles that have always guided her. "I avoid things that are too pretentious, too sugar sweet," she says. "Sentimentality never suits anything."
More than that, Scherfig thinks about the relationship between moviegoers and movies in an unusual way. Cinema, she says, is "an interpretive engine between the filmmaker and the audience. Audiences want to feel that the film sees them rather than the other way around. They want to feel understood by the film."
Scherfig also trusts her instincts. Costar Mulligan, who is exceptional as a young woman eager to "talk to people who know lots about lots," had auditioned and been put on tape by the previous regime but was not among the leading contenders before Scherfig viewed all the tapes and said, "How about this one?"
"She moved me," Scherfig says simply when asked to explain her choice for the role of Jenny. "It was more something I felt than something I saw. I liked her as a person, she had timing, humor, she was hard-working and strong enough to go through this process, and she looked like someone you would want to keep looking at."
Similarly, Scherfig cast Sally Hawkins, star of Mike Leigh's "Happy-Go-Lucky," for a critical role because "when she read, the hair on my arms went up. If they can do this now, it's easier for them to do it later.
"Sometimes I stop the audition because I don't want to wear that quality out."
Age 22 at the time "An Education" was shot, Mulligan had more experience on stage than in film, and Scherfig says she took pleasure in "helping her understand things, explaining how to work with the camera. It was such a great feeling to so spoil her, to bring in [costars] Alfred Molina one week, Emma Thompson the next. It was like having her play tennis with one champion after another."
Scherfig felt just as close, if not closer, to Sarsgaard, even though he had been cast before she was on the project. "I met him and in 20 seconds I felt, 'This will work.' He makes very good choices, he has taste, he is courageous and he dares to trust the director, which is why he is so different in every film."
The director also appreciated the way the actor understood David, the truly seductive character he plays. "Each actor is like a solicitor for their character, an expert, and Peter likes his character, he understands him. David doesn't feel very good that Jenny's a schoolgirl; all he wants is life. David is the hardest character to identify with, and Peter helped me to forgive him."