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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?”

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