Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Lewis Gilbert and Michael Caine, the director and star of Alfie, had a follow-up hit with Educating Rita, Willy Russell's charming adaptation of his own stage play. It's an intelligent story about adults meeting across the gulf of invisible barriers of class and education, with a definite nod to Pygmalion. The story hints at a conventional romance but ends up reaching for more, just like its cockney heroine Rita.
Actress Julie Walters made a big splash with this movie, which won Golden Globes for her and Caine. Both they and Willy Russell's script were nominated for Oscars.
English professor Dr. Frank Bryant (Michael Caine) is starting to show the effects of alcoholism. He's disruptive in his own classes and unresponsive to his own wife, who has taken up with one of his married colleagues behind his back. As part of an outreach program, hairdresser Rita (Julie Walters) saunters into Frank's office excited to 'better herself,' a prospect that initially fails to impress Frank - her speech and manner run counter to the image of a woman with educational aspirations. But Rita refuses to let him find her a different tutor, and Frank is slowly brought to a greater understanding of his profession.
At first Educating Rita seems like a setup for a predictable farce. Rita dresses in a tight skirt and does her hair like Vera Day, an actress of the fifties specializing in working class girls with bad diction and too much makeup. She swears too much and is awkwardly direct in her questions. Frank isn't interested in the prospect of teaching her, as he's practically stewed in an alcoholic funk. But he's surprised to find that Rita has a true spirit for learning, and her progress becomes something of a therapy for his condition.
Educating Rita is not a 'school miracle' movie, those forgettable star vehicle pictures wherein a beloved teacher "makes the difference" in the educational experience. Those stories tend to find emotional reasons for every issue, and the teacher always wins the day with a shining charismatic example. I've never believed any of those movies for a moment, not even The Dead Poet's Society.
Rita is definitely swimming against the current in her pursuit of academic studies, and the pressures she faces can't be relieved by 'a visit by teacher' or hugs and kisses. Her young husband wants a wife who thinks and acts as he does and can be counted on for companionship and singing get-togethers at the pub. Willy Russell manages to show how this is undesirable for Rita without making her family out to be ungrateful louts. The key to the film's serious attitude is a scene in which Frank invites Rita to a faculty party. She dresses up and spends an hour in busses to get there, only to change her mind when she sees the partygoers in their sharp evening clothes, standing around drinking cocktails. Russell doesn't milk the moment for pathos; Rita simply about-faces and heads back home, knowing she won't fit in.
When Frank's marriage starts to crumble (an aspect of the show handled rather perfunctorily) and Rita finds herself on her own, we expect teacher and pupil to get together. Educating Rita surprises us by showing a different outcome. Rita's blossoming into a seasoned student of literature changes her just as it changes the way she has to live. Her welcome response to academic challenges inspires Frank to reclaim his career before it is too late as well. The movie turns out to be sincere in its aims - it's not a romantic diversion masquerading as something else. It respects the intelligence of its audience.
Hard-working actor Michael Caine always gave his roles his utmost, even when pictures that really deserved him were exceptions to the rule. This superior effort was sandwiched between titles like The Island, The Hand, Victory and Blame it on Rio. Julie Walters' acting transformation never seems like a stunt and is handled in a well-done gradient; part of her falling-out with her husband comes when she no longer feels happy squawking out mindless endearments for his amusement.
Lewis Gilbert's smooth and graceful direction neatly disguises the tale's stage origins.The synthesizer score tells us that the film was made somewhere between 1978 and 83, almost like carbon-dating.
Sony's DVD of Educating Rita is a handsome enhanced transfer with excellent sharp images - Sony's encoding is very good. The widescreen formatting focuses the compositions nicely. There are no extras save for some promo trailers. I don't remember what original poster art looked like for the film, but the pair of character portraits on the keep case cover isn't all that special.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Educating Rita rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 10, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson