Will Oscar voters fall under the spell of 'An Education'?

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Every Oscar race starts with early buzz about a few films likely to nab best picture noms.

This time around, Lone Scherfig's romantic comedy drama "An Education" is one of the first. It's got that combination Academy members love: critical acclaim (90% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) and boxoffice business ($39,754 per theater last weekend in New York and Los Angeles).

The BBC Films and Endgame Entertainment production from Sony Pictures Classics expands Friday, then adds theaters throughout October and November.

Scherfig, a Danish blonde whose first name is pronounced Loan-uh, has during the past decade built a reputation as having an eye for quirky material -- just the thing needed to make this decidedly unusual film.

Scherfig's 2001 dramedy "Italian for Beginners" won a FIPRESCI international film critics award and a Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, and her profile was further enhanced with a best director nomination at the European Film Awards.

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Two years later, she made her first English-language film, the suicide-themed drama "Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself," which earned her another FIPRESCI nod. Her quirky improvised comedy "Just Like Home" screened at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival.

Reflecting on the buzz after the Los Angeles premiere of "Education" this month, she was refreshingly grounded in her reaction.

"I just should enjoy things the way they are now," she said. "I'm in this big bed at this wonderful L.A. hotel and everything went well last night, and that's more than enough."

Scherfig's film about a 16-year-old girl coming of age in Britain in the early 1960s was written by British novelist Nick Hornby, who adapted it from a magazine memoir by journalist Lynn Barber. Peter Sarsgaard and Carey Mulligan star.

"I was talking to Jenne Casarotto, a distinguished British agent that Nick and I share, and it was her idea," Scherfig said when asked how she got to make the film. "Jenne in general does not want to combine clients on projects, but she was the one who felt my take as a director would suit Nick's writing."

Scherfig feels she has something in common with Hornby that makes up for the fact her nationality is not quite relevant for his very British project.

When she read Hornby's third-draft screenplay three years ago, she liked the fact he was "warm toward his characters, but also shows the flaws they have." Her good feel for bringing those characters to life played a key part in getting the producers to bring her on board.

In particular, she admits to being "completely seduced" by Sarsgaard's character, David, a charismatic older man who brings exciting new alternatives into the life of Mulligan's teenage Jenny.

Semi-spoiler alert: David's not quite who we think he is. "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 Jenny is.

"We don't want a main character who's like that. And that's how the film changes," the helmer 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 only had $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, who plays 16 when we first meet her. After David enters the picture, she blossoms into a more sophisticated 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 only afford 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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