I admit I'm a sucker for anything starring Michael Caine, and 1983's "Educating Rita" is one of the best things he's done. Throw in an equally fine performance by British actress Julie Walters, and you get a little gem of a movie.
Or maybe I'm so fond of "Educating Rita" because I spent close to forty years as a teacher, and this is one of the best movies made on the subject of education. Not the subject of teachers and teaching, mind you: the subject of pure education. Ask any group of college or high school prep students why they want an education, and I'd be willing to bet that a majority of them would answer it's to prepare them for a career, to get them the job they want, to make more money than they could make without a degree. Oh, maybe there will be a nerdy type or an independent thinker who'll suggest that an education could help a person widen his or her horizons, help a person be happier, help a person appreciate the world better by learning more about it, help a person make more reasoned decisions, or help a person make a greater contribution to the well-being of Mankind. But even these people may harbor the feeling that in the end it's really about the money.
"Educating Rita" explores the pros and cons of a liberal-arts education, the kind of education that doesn't always lead to a lucrative career but may lead to a more fulfilled life. The movie takes an ordinary woman of modest means and modest background, examines her life in lower-middle class obscurity, follows her dream of self-improvement through higher education, her joys in a newly discovered life, and her sorrows when she eventually realizes that simply "learning" things--reading the "right" books, listening to the "right" music, or ordering the "right" wine--isn't the end-all she'd hoped it would be. With knowledge must come the wisdom and responsibility to use it.
Yet the film is not as preachy as I make it sound. It's mostly a joyous, often funny, journey of self-discovery that carries the viewer along with its main character from beginning to end. At the same time, it's a subtle and touching romance, a kind of "Pygmalion," with the professor learning as much from the student as the student learns from the professor.
Directed by Lewis Gilbert ("The Admirable Crichton," "Alfie," "Shirley Valentine") and based on a stage play by Willy Russell, "Educating Rita" stars Julie Walters as a married hairdresser who is unhappy with what she views as her unfulfilled lot in life. Living in a small apartment with a husband whose primary interests are football and television, Rita looks for a way out. She sees an opportunity in the UK's Open University, a chance to take classes to improve her position. (According their Web site, "the Open University was established to be 'open', with no entry requirements.") Rita chooses to study English and gets assigned Dr. Frank Bryant (Michael Caine) as her tutor.
Unlike all those "inspiring teacher" movies you see around, this one features perhaps the least-inspiring teacher in filmdom. Frank is an alcoholic English professor who wallows in self-pity at never having succeeded as a published poet, and the last thing he wants right now is to tutor a twenty-seven-year-old woman with no background in literature or higher education. But he sees in Rita a kind of free spirit that he finds irresistible, and she sees in him a kind of challenge. He determines to change her by teaching her to read poetry and write essays and think for herself, and she determines to change him by persuading him to give up drinking and go back to writing. But it's not as easy as that. Over a period of several years, they grow quite fond of one another, but while Rita changes, Frank doesn't. This isn't the sort of romantic pulp fiction that Rita imagined life was all about when she started on her quest for a new life, even having pretentiously changed her name from Susan to Rita because of her love for the books of popular author Rita Mae Brown. Nor is Frank everybody's notion of the romantic hero. When he's sober he's an engaging, witty, and personable fellow; but when he's drunk, which is about half the time, he can be quite obnoxious.
As Rita gets more education, we see her change in obvious outward ways: She modifies her previously tawdry hair color and style, she dresses more chicly, and she improves her vocabulary. Her husband, Denny (Malcolm Douglas), doesn't like her going to school; he says it interferes with their having babies and going to the pub every night, a pub that "carries eight different brands of beer." She must make a decision to stay with Denny or become a new person.
Frank, on the other hand, goes on drinking. Nor is he sure that helping Rita to read good books and write good essays and pass her exams and become more self-assured is such a good thing; he wonders if he isn't destroying her former honest, if naive, self. He thinks he may be creating a Frankenstein (which is perhaps why his name is "Frank"). Simultaneously, Frank discovers that the young woman he's living with, Julia (Jeananne Crowley), his teaching assistant, is carrying on an affair with his best friend, a fellow professor, Brian (Michael Williams), so Frank, too, must make a personal decision. It isn't long before Frank and Rita are caught up in their separate and their personal lives.
Basically, "Educating Rita" is a two-person show, and the movie betrays its stage origins in almost constant, yet clever, banter. However, the movie opens up the stage play with additional characters who don't always fully support the themes portrayed by the main couple. The movie might have been better off without the husband, the lover, the best friend, the parents, and Rita's new roommate, a cultured, bohemian type named Trish (Maureen Lipman): "Wouldn't you just die without Mahler?" If the movie had concentrated solely on the Rita-Frank relationship, it might have found a better focus; but, then, it might not have been half as much fun. Still, that's neither here nor there. It is what it is, and the assorted peripheral characters do no serious harm.
The movie starts out amiably and amusingly enough, turns serious in the middle, and ends as a poignant and touching drama. "All I want is what I'm finding inside me," says Rita; she wants "to sing a better song." By the conclusion, Frank needs her more than she needs him. Maybe the story is all a little too obvious and too pat, it's true, but the movie still works to delightful effect, both as a thoughtful thematic treatise on cultivation and learning and as a charming character study of two lost souls from different worlds finding a common need in one another.
Just don't expect a typical romantic ending. "Educating Rita" is a romance of a different sort, clearly the story of a love for knowledge and change rather than simply of a love between two people.
The video is fine but nothing to rave about. The movie's original 1.85:1 dimensions are rendered slightly less wide on DVD in an anamorphic ratio that fully accommodates a 16x9 widescreen television. Although the image quality is slightly soft, sometimes even a bit dull, with just a touch of fine grain, the detailing is quite good and black levels are consistently strong.
The audio is reproduced via Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. At least, I assume it's mono. The keep case is mum on the subject, and in Dolby Pro Logic the sound comes out of only the center speaker. It doesn't matter. The movie is derived from a stage play, remember, meaning that it is almost entirely dialogue driven. Only the midrange matters, and it is clear and clean. Who cares if there is scant little bass or treble or dynamic range. It just doesn't matter (although it might have been nice to give David Hentschel's wholly supportive musical score a little breathing room).
There's not much in the way of extras here. This is about as bare-bones a DVD release as we see these days. The only things of distinction are two theatrical trailers, both in fullscreen, for "The Remains of the Day" and "For Pete's Sake." Nothing for "Educating Rita." In addition, there are twenty-eight scene selections, but no chapter insert; English and French spoken languages; and English and French subtitles.
When my wife and I first saw "Educating Rita" it was several years after its initial release, and it was paired up in a double bill with a far more popular film of the day, "The Big Chill." Today, I couldn't tell you a thing about "The Big Chill," but "Educating Rita" remains vividly in memory. It's a timeless story of finding oneself and becoming fulfilled as a human being.
Sure, the movie lays it on pretty thick and oversimplifies things; it's an entertainment, after all. Yet it manages to say more about pure education, self-improvement, self-discovery, and human relationships than a dozen such movies as "Dead Poets Society." Caine, Walters, and screenwriter Willy Russell were all nominated for Academy Awards.