×

Design a true ‘Education’

Andrew McAlpine's touches evoke early 1960s subtly

In the fall of 1962, just after Lynn Barber, the author of memoir “An Education,” went to Oxford, the first white vinyl boot appeared on the fashion catwalk — one of the milestones heralding the arrival of what we now think of as the ’60s.

Andrew McAlpine, production designer of this year’s film adaptation of that book, decided to avoid any such flagrant symbols of the dawning era. “I didn’t want to tip the audience’s mind into the easy notion of the swinging ’60s,” he says.

For McAlpine, designing the film was “a sociological process,” with the impending cultural explosion personified in the character of 16-year-old Jenny, played by Carey Mulligan. “Lone (Scherfig, the director) and I talked about this a lot — about how much we wanted this to creep in. (Jenny) was this time bomb that led the way.”

In postwar Britain, he adds, families reveled in the safety of the home. But Jenny strains against the confines of her parents’ cozy mock-Tudor life, retreating to her room to listen to French music and dream of Paris. In the midst of floral prints and cuckoo clocks, her pink Dansette record player is clearly of another era. “(It) was like having drugs in your room,” McAlpine says of the Dansette. “It was an incredibly foreign experience … to play music of your choice in your room. This was modern, this was cool.”

After Jenny meets and brings home David, played by Peter Sarsgaard, a sophisticated yet shady older man who drives a Bristol, a hand-built luxury car of which only six were made a year, her parents, too, begin to feel the pull of another world. Notes McAlpine, “Alfred Molina’s character (Jenny’s father) couldn’t ever have imagined sitting in a car like that.”

Soon Jenny is impressing her friends with gold-tipped Sobranie cigarettes from Paris and going to nightclubs to hear live music. David’s friend Danny, played by Dominic Cooper, invites her to an auction, where she bids on a painting by Edward Burne-Jones, one of her favorite artists. One can see in the Pre-Raphaelite painter’s classical symbolism and intricate, decorative style the seeds of psychedelic poster art — another foreshadowing of what was in store.

Given his low budget, McAlpine had to push for a pivotal scene at the dog track toward the end of the film. “To keep those lights on was 2,000,” he says, “but we needed to show this new life that was just starting to crack in London.”

Much of the excitement was conveyed by the simple graphic elements of Jenny’s red-and-white chiffon frock and the glitzy gold sheath worn by Danny’s girlfriend Helen, played by Rosamund Pike. Set against mirrored tiles and the view of the track, “All of a sudden it had this new gangster/early ’60s feel to it all.”

McAlpine also cites the humble, bohemian apartment of Jenny’s teacher, Miss Stubbs, played by Olivia Williams, as the final key to the character’s transformation. Here, surrounded by her mentor’s books and art, Jenny figures out for herself “that knowledge could be around you.”

And when Miss Stubbs dismisses her possessions — including a Burne-Jones reproduction — as “just paperbacks and postcards,” Jenny responds with newfound wisdom: “That’s all you need, isn’t it?”

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Visions du Réel Reimagined as Digital

    Switzerland's Visions du Réel Reimagined as Digital Only Event

    Visions du Réel, a film festival in Nyon, Switzerland, has changed the format of its next edition to accommodate the restrictions imposed by the Swiss government in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Originally planned to run from April 24 to May 2, the festival will now be a digital-only event held over a longer period, [...]

  • SAG-AFTRA HQ

    SAG-AFTRA Announces Dues Extension Program for Members During Coronavirus Pandemic

    SAG-AFTRA has developed a program to provide dues relief for SAG-AFTRA members during the Covid-19 pandemic with an extension of the May 1 deadline. “Members experiencing financial hardship resulting from work stoppages related to Covid-19 will be granted a due date extension and an installment plan for those payments,” the union said. “As part of [...]

  • Studio Babelsberg

    Terminated 'Matrix 4,' 'Uncharted' Film Crews Demand Help From Studio Babelsberg

    Germany’s Studio Babelsberg is seeking to find a settlement with hundreds of film crew members following the shutdown earlier this month of Warner Bros.’ “The Matrix 4” and Sony Pictures’ “Uncharted” amid the coronavirus outbreak. The production stop has left many independent film crew members without pay and more than 300 have formed a working [...]

  • Empty movie theater

    Theater Owners Create $2.4 Million Fund for Cinema Workers

    The National Association of Theatre Owners and the Pioneers Assistance Fund have created an initial $2.4 million fund to provide financial assistance to movie theater employees who need help due to the coronavirus pandemic. The organizations said Monday that the first part of the initiative is a grant program that will provide a stipend to [...]

  • Bob Chapek Bob Iger Disney

    Bob Iger to Give Up Salary, Other Senior Disney Executives to Take Pay Cuts

    Disney has joined the list of companies implementing sizable pay cuts for senior executives amid the upheaval caused by the coronavirus crisis. Bob Iger, who shifted from chairman-CEO to executive chairman last month, has opted to forgo his salary for the year. Bob Chapek, who succeeded Iger as CEO, has taken a 50% pay cut. [...]

  • Sundance Horror Movie 'Relic' Picked Up

    Sundance Horror Movie 'Relic,' Starring Emily Mortimer, Picked Up By Film Constellation

    London-based production, finance and sales company Film Constellation has boarded the critically-lauded “Relic,” the debut feature from Natalie Erika James. The film, which stars Emily Mortimer (“Shutter Island”), Robyn Nevin (“The Matrix Trilogy”) and Bella Heathcote (“The Neon Demon”), had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in the Midnight section. The film, which [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content