‘An Education,’ ‘Their Finest’ and how Lone Scherfig’s radiant films preach hope in dark times

Danish director Lone Scherfig has helmed 10 feature films, all similar in style and tone but varying vastly in subject matter. Her diverse filmography is appealing not only to avid cinephiles but even the most casual viewer. They are irresistibly entertaining and refreshingly accessible, with deep themes and rich stories that are not hindered by their approachable, old-fashioned format. Consistently smart and engaging, Scherfig is the rare independent filmmaker who handles mainstream themes with style.

Her most notable films are arguably the Academy Award-nominated An Education (2009), the woefully underrated Their Finest (2016) and her most recent feature which she also penned, The Kindness of Strangers (2020). And that’s just in the past decade – she has 11 additional writing credits for her previous films like Italian For Beginners (2000) and Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself (2002).

Aesthetically-pleasing period pieces following female protagonists, both An Education and Their Finest take place in 20th Century England. The former won young Carey Mulligan her first Oscar nomination for portraying Jenny Mellor, a high school senior in 1961 who becomes infatuated with an older man and loses sight of her academic goals and bright future. Written by prolific screenwriter and novelist Nick Hornby (About a Boy, Brooklyn, High Fidelity, Funny Girl), An Education was also nominated for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay – but unsurprisingly garnered no recognition for Scherfig, though she was nominated for Best Director by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts that year. 

An Education

You would think of Ben-Hur or something like that when I say ‘epic,’ but when saying ‘epic,’ I mean things that are related to the time that you’re in,” Scherfig told FF2 Media’s Jan Lisa Huttner in a 2009 interview about the difference between epics and dramas. “It’s almost the time, and not Jenny, that’s the main character in An Education. And it’s the fleshing out of this specific time that makes the film work I think. We don’t have 6,000 extras in sandals, but it’s about the time.” 

In Their Finest, Catrin Cole is played by Gemma Arterton, who should be commended for making several excellent films directed by women over the past decade, from 2020 SWAN Day selection Gemma Bovery to Vita & Virginia (2018), along with Julie Delpy’s upcoming My Zoe (2019), a selection for the now-online Tribeca Film Festival. 

Cole is an admirable and inspiring character, hired by the British Ministry of Information to write propaganda ads during World War II. She is initially only brought on to write “the slop,” a derogatory term for women’s dialogue, until Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin, who also starred in Scherfig’s The Riot Club) recruits her to co-write a Dunkirk-inspired film starring female characters. It is an undeniably exceptional movie, exhibiting wartime heart and humor while subtly telling a compelling love story, from screenwriter Gaby Chiappe based on the novel Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans. One of the most inspiring feminist films of the past five years, Their Finest shows the unsung influence of women on popular culture – and how women writers in particular can bring a fresh perspective to old stories. Though Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk was released in the same year, Scherfig and Chiappe’s feature is a far more compelling look at the English people during that period of the war. It serves as a timely reminder in 2020 of how stories can save us, lift us and give us hope in the bleakest times. 

Their Finest

The Scherfig filmography ranges as widely in critical acclaim as the stories do in theme and narrative arc; her most recent release The Kindness of Strangers sits at only 15 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes despite being far superior to her 2011 doomed love story starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess, One Day (36 percent fresh). Though largely panned when compared to her previous pieces, The Kindness of Strangers offers the same thought-provoking theme of resilience as the previous films. Starring Zoe Kazan as Clara, a homeless mother of two escaping an abusive relationship, Scherfig proves a meaningful point about human connection and exemplifies how the smallest actions can have a positive ripple effect. It might get bogged down more often than her briskly-paced other films, but it also provides something different: a universal story in the here-and-now, for anyone who has ever been changed by the unexpected decency of a stranger. 

It is especially resonant to revisit in the time of coronavirus, when people are delivering meals to the hungry and supplies to the elderly. Kids are learning to sew medical masks, grandparents are Zoom-chatting with loved ones, colleges are providing empty dorm rooms as housing for first responders. The titular kindness of strangers is not often explored in film, with so many filmmakers preferring to dwell in the negative. Scherfig dares to be positive without drifting into the saccharine, and The Kindness of Strangers should be praised for its efforts to remind us of our connectedness. (And for a small but impactful supporting performance from Bill Nighy, who also added to the perfection of Their Finest with his signature hilarious humor.)

The Kindness of Strangers

An award-winning director and graduate of the National Film School of Denmark, Lone Scherfig is an outstanding filmmaker who takes the time to be with her characters in a completely unpretentious way. Her lack of flash and self-importance allows her subjects to shine, bringing the story to the surface in a simultaneously straight-forward and artistically-sound way. 

Her films are beautiful in style, scope and most importantly, storytelling. Even when she doesn’t write the screenplay, her signature touch makes the movies enjoyable to watch – even if they aren’t about traditionally “enjoyable” topics. An Education addresses a forbidden romance with a questionable age gap and slowly-unraveling ethical implications; Their Finest deals with the war, sexism, the blitz and propaganda; The Kindness of Strangers tackles homelessness and abuse. And yet, all three films and Scherfig’s others are tinged with hope and enjoyment, seamless storytelling and even well-placed laughs where other films might drown in drudgery. 

“I think filmmakers do have an obligation to select films that put out something they believe in and reflect their values or beliefs,” she told FF2 Media’s Lesley Coffin in 2017. “And I do turn down films, films I find too generic or too similar to what I’ve already done or don’t have meaning to me. The truth is, most of the films I’ve made are labeled romantic comedies, but that’s not one of my favorite genres. I think it can be the most formulaic, with the strictest rules. I think you see more visionary films in some of the bigger films. I think the Marvel films are much more visionary than most of the nice romantic comedies I watch on a plane.”

Her films are proof that filmmakers who take their material painstakingly seriously can sometimes deflate under the weight of their dullness. Scherfig’s filmography is filled with light and accessibility without being overly sentimental or unrealistic, especially for women in varying difficult circumstances. They are significant films to revisit during this coronavirus quarantine because they all feature a healthy dose of hope, humor and bright spots in the darkness. Watch a Lone Scherfig movie to remember that films can be more than just escape or distraction; they can be an education, a kindness, a fine hour and a half.

© Georgiana E. Presecky (4/23/20) FF2 Media

Photos Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics, Lionsgate UK, Vertical Entertainment

Read our interviews with Lone Scherfig in 2009 and 2017.

Read our reviews of An Education (free with ads on Sony Crackle), One Day (free on Netflix), The Riot Club, Their Finest and The Kindness of Strangers (all for rent on Prime Video).

Read our festival coverage of Scherfig’s films, from 2009 to 2017, plus why Their Finest is among FF2 Media’s “Best of the Decade.” 

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