Title: Educating Rita
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Director: Lewis Gilbert
Writer: Willy Russell
Music: David Hentschel
Cinematography: Frank Watts
It is not a British version of MY FAIR LADY (1964, 6/10), EDUCATING RITA goes a bit higher than that, it is about how literature can improve one’s listless life and transfigure one’s entire bearing from within.
Rita, aka Susan White (Walters) is a 26-year-old hairdresser, married to an ordinary electrician for 6 years, she never goes to college, but finds herself as a thirsty bookworm, thus under the aim of completing her education and take the exam, she eagerly takes an open university tutorial from a college literature professor Dr. Frank Bryant (Caine), a middle-age divorcé and drunkard. So it is a story of Rita’s transformation from a low-class commoner to a mature woman who realises her self-worth and does embrace to the life she is really pining for. At the same time, it is a brilliant two-hander, Frank’s life orbit also veers dramatically since the two form a thoroughly cordial friendship. (I was so relieved it didn’t end up like a Hollywood mawkish rom-com with artificial happy ending.)
Adapted by Willy Russell from his own play, the film allows Walters reprises her role in her film version against an illustrious Michael Caine, all three are deservingly honoured with Oscar-nominations. Walters is simply ebullient in her big screen debut, she slickly delivers her lines with thick Cockney accent, and magically carry on the comic tone like a true comedienne, without resorting to slapstick or silly gags, her talent is oozing from the entire body of work, everything feels authentic even during the most contrived paragraph where she duly spill her knowledge in front of a group of stunned customers in the bistro where she works, which seems to be excusable thanks to her confidence and top-notch line-delivery. Far from farcical, Rita is also a role with her side of sacrifice and struggle, she has to give up her marriage to pursue what she wants, to know herself better, quote the line “to sing a better song”. In those more dramatic sequences, Walter never falters and comes off as compelling as ever.
Meanwhile, Walter has sparkling chemistry with an urban but alcohol-addicted Caine, whose Frank is a damaged good himself although he is the kind Rita inspires to be, the film incisively points out , everyone has his or her own deficit no matter what, take the example of Trish (Lipman), Rita’s bohemian, happy-go-lucky roommate’s suicidal attempt, life cannot be merely surrounded by literature and music, life is much bigger than that, we can relish in them, but never too immersed, otherwise, the rest of the time, it is purely difficult to bear.
Frank’s affection towards Rita is quite tangible along the courses of their interaction, Caine marvels in concealing his seething discontent and wanton rebelliousness with outright ludicrousness, he is in need of being rescued as well, but realistically, he is not a model teacher, his saviour could not be Rita, but a rehab session to begin with. It is a role cannot be more apposite for Caine and he nails it superbly.
Talking about some minor impediments of the film, its 80s’ signature synthesised score could be mildly annoying, not in perfect harmony with its college milieu; and the script, although being audaciously persuasive and full of chewy set pieces for its players, sometimes, a sensitive viewer may get a sense of patronising air afloat, reading great literature can only help one to get to know the world, and the feelings better, but not elevate one out of the world and feel superior to the mundanity, as Frank’s down under exile can potently testify.
It is my second entry of seasoned UK director Lewis Gilbert’s (after SHIRLEY VALENTINE 1989), EDUCATING RITA is on a par with the former, with a strong feminist stance to live one’s life fully and get out of the shackles which a conventional society imposes on womanhood, sadly it is still pertinent in most of the world 31 years later, thus, it is a film we shall not overlook.