SOMETIMES, STUDENTS END UP BEING THE BEST TEACHERS!
The promise of an education means that you are given the tools to create something out of your life. This is a film about a working-class girl who is determined to further herself and realizes how much her efforts are changing the way she views her friends and family… and herself. But there is also much more to playwright Willy Russell’s study of individuals caught in a class system.
Frank Bryant (Michael Caine) teaches literature in Liverpool, but has given up any ambitions to make his feather-brained, wide-eyed students truly understand the value of reading the old classics. He’d much rather get his hands on that scotch bottle he’s hiding in his bookcase (ironically enough behind a copy of Charles R. Jackson’s classic story about alcoholism, “The Lost Weekend”) and ponder the miserable state of the universe. Then Rita White (Julie Walters) enters his life. She’s a 26-year-old hairdresser who wants to study literature and Frank is her assigned Open University professor.
When they first meet, he tells her that he’s not interested in teaching her anything, but he’s underestimating her. Rita may look and talk like someone whose reading experience doesn’t go beyond the average gossip rag, but she is intelligent, gutsy, and open to new experiences (as long as she doesn’t have to read too much E.M. Forster). As Frank reluctantly agrees to take her on as a student, they both discover that their old preconceptions are false.
Expanding the original play
The original play is set entirely in Frank’s office and features only two characters. In his adaptation, Russell expanded his work and made it more cinematic. There’s a host of new characters and locations; none of them are terribly essential, but it’s always nice to see someone make the extra effort whenever a stage play is headed for the screen. Director Lewis Gilbert makes a welcome low-key return after the needlessly overblown Moonraker (1979) with a drama that primarily relies on the excellent performances of one veteran actor and one newcomer who had previously worked in television. Caine delivers one of his most appreciated performances and must have felt at ease working with Gilbert; he was equally successful in the director’s Alfie (1966).
Walters is very credible in one of those breakthrough roles that actors dream of; one believes in her long journey from being a person who only reads pulp fiction to someone whose mind is expanded thanks to the thick, meaty novels that she’s made to read, as well as the intellectual duels with her teacher. As their relationship evolves in Pygmalion fashion, it becomes clear that no matter how many books Frank reads he is still unable to understand his own situation and problems… but Rita is on the other hand increasingly aware of the virtues and flaws of the two classes that she inevitably finds herself straddling.
The film is always interesting, never profound or moving enough. The one thing I found downright jarring is composer David Hentschel’s score. Perfectly serviceable in its own right, the music is however performed on a synthesizer and is a scary example of early 1980s lack of sensitivity when it came to exploring new grounds in this genre.
Educating Rita 1983-Britain. 110 min. Color. Produced and directed by Lewis Gilbert. Screenplay, Play: Willy Russell. Music: David Hentschel. Cast: Michael Caine (Frank Bryant), Julie Walters (Rita White), Michael Williams (Brian), Maureen Lipman, Jeananne Crowley, Malcolm Douglas.
Golden Globes: Best Actor (Caine), Actress (Walters). BAFTA: Best Film, Actor (Caine), Actress (Walters).
Last word: “Making the film [after the play] was utterly different. I made Rita a bit rougher round the edges and toned my performance down. The director, Lewis Gilbert, wanted me but I’d never done a feature before, only a bit of telly, and they needed a star. There was talk of doing it with Paul Newman and Dolly Parton. But then Michael Caine came on board as Frank and I was in. I remember his wife saying: ‘You are very lucky it’s Michael.’ She was thinking of other people of that ilk, who were starry and not that easy. But Michael was lovely, so generous to me.” (Walters, The Guardian)