Taste is the most subjective thing in film criticism. It’s a deeply personal thing, built on background and core beliefs that direct how a given person responds to a given moviegoing experience.
I think about “Educating Rita” several times a year, pretty much every year since this 1983 jewel came out. I think of it whenever someone mentions another grand Michael Caine performance, as friends prep children for the Big Adventure of university, and urge them to watch it with their kids before they depart. I couldn’t help but think of it watching “Tár,” which is all about Mahler, at least as a subtext.
That line, “Wouldn’t you just die without Mahler?” from “Rita” is amusing, ironic and aspirational. A pretentious but fragile young aesthete bubbles it to our title character more than once.
Working at a classical music NPR station at the time “Rita” came out, my friends on the staff and I just snorted at the reference, sort of a variation of the way Woody Allen used Mahler as shorthand for “See how smart I am?” himself and how cultured any of his characters who dropped the name were meant to be viewed.
And I recall how this movie changed my life. Whatever the critics at the time thought — and Roger Ebert rather missed the boat on this one — it was plain to me at the time that the upper-middle to upper class backgrounds of that generation of reviewers kept them from “getting” a movie that can be summed up with a few words from Willy Russell’s play that spoke to college professor Dr. Frank Bryant (Caine) as well, the reasons this hairdresser and “Open University” student he was tutoring wanted to go to college.
Rita (Julie Walters, in a career-defining performance) was down’ta pub with her family. Everyone was swilling beer, young and old, singing along to some inane Brit-pop on the jukebox. And Rita noticed her Mum weeping.
“Why are you crying, Mother,” she asked?
“There must be better songs to sing than this,” her despairing mother answered.
That’s the play. That’s the movie. That’s why you show this film to your kids, in high school or as they’re college-bound, especially if they’re not to the manner born. College is an expensive gamble, adventure and ordeal. And why do you go? To learn how other people see the world, to meet people from cultures outside your social or work circle, to expand your mind, to learn that there are better songs to sing.
Caine plays “Frank,” as Rita calls him, first scene to last, with a mix of burn-out dipsomania and long-dormant idealism. He is the teacher, the mentor who relishes the “unspoiled” working girl of 26 who presents herself to him to be taught.
Dr. Frank Bryant has a roomy, book-stuffed office, with bottles hidden behind some volumes. “The Lost Weekend” hides one, because he’s witty that way. But his classes have noticed the sleepy eyes and boozy, distracted slur of his lectures.
“You don’t really expect me to teach this sober?”
Frank is a published poet who teaches literature, 50ish and past caring. And then this blowsy spitfire shows up, an empty vessel who wants him to “change” her “from the inside,” expose her to the wider world, better songs and real literature.
“Devouring pulp fiction is not being ‘well-read,,'” he tells her, words I’ve parroted to too many comic book addicts to count. “You have to be selective. Discipline your mind!”
Rita, whose real name is Susan but who changed it to be more colorful — like her bleached blonde with pink highlights hair — will journey from uncultured naif to collegiate sophisticate. She will do this over the objections of her working class bloke husband (Malcolm Douglas) who doesn’t approve of anything that takes her away from him, their home, the pub and his zeal to become a father, of anything that “changes” her.
She bubbles over with enthusiasm after seeing her first play (“Macbeth”), develops a sharp outsider’s take on Chekov and Ibsen, learns how to write scholarly essays as she prepares for final examinations. Walters makes every moment feel like a discovery, one we’d want to make ourselves.
Rita is a walking, talking accidental pun, especially concerning E.M. Forster’s most famous novel and one of the many British euphemisms for one’s buttocks.
“‘Howard’s End?’ Sounds disgusting!”
Frank will find himself traveling from tuned-out, burn-out case to someone who at least has one thing a week to look forward to, an eager pupil whose journey he watches with a mixture of awe, joy and horror. Pupils are destined to outgrow their teachers. And Frank, being pretty far gone, needs “a shock to the system” (another Caine gem from this period in his career) if he’s ever going to crawl out of the bottle, out of a failed love affair and out of (it is implied) the cycle of taking up with female students who flatter him and keep him stuck in one place, tipsy, preserved in amber, bitter about what might have been.
Watching the film anew, prompted by Cate Blanchett’s “Wouldn’t you just die without Mahler?” performance, I was struck by its relevance to our moment. People hellbent on preserving the cocoons they live in are on the warpath against the Ritas who left their social, familial and geographic bubbles, who dared to broaden their experience of the world, who are willing to expose themselves to alternate points of view and who develop depth, sophistication and empathy for others simply by breaking out of their provincialism.
The only thing that “dates” “Educating Rita” is the period-correct but insipid synthesizer score, which not only dates movies of that era, but grates in virtually every film that made that fateful musical choice back then.
Director Lewis Gilbert was best-known for making Michael Caine’s breakout, “Alfie,” and three James Bond films. He also directed the adaptation of Willy Russell’s other famous play from that era, the similarly-themed (a woman “changed” by a mind-expanding experience — travel) “Shirley Valentine.”
“Educating Rita” was nominated for three Oscars. It won none. Caine would have to wait for his, and became a Grand Old Man of the Cinema, celebrated in blockbusters, indie films and Oscar bait pictures for the rest of his days.
Walters became a character actress and mainstay of Brit film, a delight in the “Mama Mia!” movies, and a beloved member of the Harry Potter Universe.
Me? I saw “Educating Rita” from the perch of a public radio job at a university. Within three months of seeing it, I had enrolled in grad school, studying English/criticism, finding a mentor and starting the part time job of reviewing films for a North Dakota newspaper.
Maybe Roger Ebert didn’t like it. Sometimes he’d do that just to have something to argue with Siskel about on TV. I thought “Rita” was a wonderful character piece that spoke to people who could relate to working class upbringing aspiring for something greater. For years, I’d write columns on how this should be shown to teenagers — cussing included — who might pick up on its messaging and aspire to bigger, finer things.
Now, I still see it as a true classic, one of the finest films of the ’80s, a high point for Caine, Walters and Gilbert and a movie I think about all the time because it literally changed my life.
Rating: PG, some profanity
Cast: Julie Walters, Michael Caine, Maureen Lipman, Malcolm Douglas, Michael Williams
Credits: Directed by Lewis Gilbert, scripted by Willy Russell, based on his play. A Rank/Acorn release, on Youtube, Amazon and many free streamers.
Running time: 1:50