TORONTO - Critics aren't the only ones who have been bowled over by Carey Mulligan's turn in "An Education," the Nick Hornby-penned film in which the up-and-coming British actress plays a London schoolgirl seduced by an older man.
Danish director Lone Scherfig says Mulligan's tour-de-force performance surprised even her co-stars, who include acting heavyweights Emma Thompson, Alfred Molina and Peter Sarsgaard.
"It's not all that easy for actors to play with someone who is not experienced," Scherfig said during an interview at last month's Toronto International Film Festival.
"But I could tell that they got surprised. . . . and it's not just them making her performance good, but it's the other way around."
"An Education," which opens Friday in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, is the first English-language film for Scherfig, whose previous credits include the smart, offbeat comedies "Italian for Beginners" and "Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself."
Set in 1961, "An Education" tells the story of 16-year-old Jenny (Mulligan), who has plans to study at Oxford and dreams of experiencing the world.
Her senior year at school is derailed, however, when she meets the mysterious David (Sarsgaard), who sweeps her into a glamorous life of art, supper clubs and music.
Scherfig, who shared an agent with Hornby and was hired to helm "An Education" after another director dropped the project, says she knew straight away that Mulligan was her lead.
"I just got the pile of DVDs and there she was," she said. "There is a lot of talent in England at the moment. . . . The film is very dependent on who the leading lady is.
"It has a sweetness to it that is hers."
"An Education" screened to raves at the Sundance film festival and later in Toronto and Mulligan - whose most notable prior role was in 2005's "Pride and Prejudice" (she's recently been shooting "Wall Street 2") - has already generated Oscar buzz.
Mulligan's performance is buoyed by Hornby's screenplay, which features the "High Fidelity" author's trademark brand of fragile wit and is based on a memoir by journalist Lynn Barber.
"What I'm very happy about is that people seem to 'get' the film, that they get the warmth and the complexity of it and they fall in love with Jenny and they are seduced by David and that's very, very nice to see," says Scherfig.
Sarsgaard ("Boys Don't Cry," "Shattered Glass") is known for taking interesting roles, and Scherfig surmised that his involvement in "An Education" drew other top-drawer actors to the film, which also features Sally Hawkins and Rosamund Pike.
"Peter was attached at a very early point. And he is someone that guarantees that it's an interesting project."
In addition to its stellar cast, "An Education" offers up an intoxicating portrait of London in 1961. It's a city at crossroads, as Jenny is caught between the post-war values of her parents and a future she yearns for but can't quite envision.
"To a certain extent, it's London that's the main character, not Jenny," said Scherfig.
"Jenny is London, or is coming of age the way London is. She is just heading with a very high speed into a future that she wants, but doesn't know is coming.
"As an audience, you know that it will be swinging, it will be fun . . . I think she's stuck because she wants a future that she can't see in any of the people surrounding her. . . . That's why she turns to (David). He can offer her the life that she thinks she wants."