Michael Caine and Julie Walters come together to bring a transformation of Willy Russell’s play Educating Rita to the big screen, bringing authenticity and chemistry to the roles of Dr Frank Bryant and Rita respectively.
Rita is a working class hairdresser who spots an ad for an Open University course on TV and decides to go for it. On campus she is given tutorial lessons by the burnt out Dr Frank Bryant, an alcoholic university lecturer who has lost his zest for the job to the point where he can no longer be bothered to turn up for his classes sober. At the beginning of their relationship it appears as if Rita is playing the Eliza Doolittle role made famous by Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, yet Educating Rita is a wholly different film in that the tutor here prefers Rita the way she is. The last thing that he wants is for her to be what he deems “educated.”
As the film progresses we see that as Frank is tutoring Rita through her exams, he is also learning and taking on Rita’s frank unpretentious view of things. Near the beginning of the film Rita overhears another student discussing the term assonance and on hearing Frank’s definition, she replies “So it’s a rhyme that doesn’t work then.” Fed up of hearing his students and colleagues over-analyse everything he’s delighted with Rita’s unpretentious view of the word. Their honest and open view of each other completely transforms them both by the film’s finish.
Caine is brilliant as a teacher who has completely lost his passion for his work and everyone associated with an “educated lifestyle.” Coming off the back of films like Escape to Victory, in which he plays a football player, and The Hand, in which he plays a comic book artist who loses his hand and then goes on a murder spree, Dr Frank Bryant may seem light in comparison. Yet Educating Rita has stood the test of time because Caine makes his character wholly believable and relatable. He clearly once loved literature and still has a love for books, yet his students and the pressure of how they must perform in exams has slowly drained his love for the job.
In an early scene in a classroom, we see that the roles of student and teacher are reversed with the students ready and willing to discuss William Blake while Bryant daydreams out of the window. He tells them that Blake is nothing more than a dead poet and questions why they are all sitting in a dreary classroom when they should be outside enjoying their youth. The joke is that, Blake had a similar view of institutionalized education and felt that it actually stifled creativity. Blake felt the love of reading would come more naturally if there were not exams and lectures to drain the life from it. Bryant’s strong distaste for exams could be seen as a critique of the education system itself, with him reluctant to teach Rita how to analyse a book and thereby remove what made her original take of it unique.
Julie Walters is truly astounding as Rita. She makes a fearless entrance, literally kicking her way into a tutorial through a stuck door. She has a thick working-class accent which immediately jars with the posh, so called educated accents we have heard up to that point.
Dressed in a pink hairdresser’s smock and with bright blonde hair, she stands out from the other students around the campus. As we first see her make her way across the campus she appears slightly intimidated, but the chemistry she has with Bryant when she is with him in his office allows her to come out of her shell. Bryant notices that she is in fact very witty, with a frank and unblemished view of literature. He does not want to be the one responsible for making her like all his other students. He tries to leave her, saying that he is an ‘appalling teacher,’ which is normally OK as he normally deals with ‘appalling students.’ She manages to convince him she sees a fellow outsider in him.
Rita’s transformation from bleach blonde hairdresser stuck in a relationship where her husband’s only ambition is to have children and go to the pub every night, to an unpretentious educated graduate is brilliantly done. It begins when Bryant invites Rita to his home with friends, yet she becomes too intimidated at the door and instead goes to the pub where she thinks she is comfortable. However, she realizes she feels completely alone in the crowded bar and realises that there must be something better than this.
Bryant remains convinced throughout the film that people who come from Rita’s way of life do not have it any better or worse than educated people, they only have it slightly different. Rita also begins to learn this truth when her flatmate, whom she feels is completely in control of her life with her excellent taste in music and literature, attempts to commit suicide because of her loneliness.
Ultimately what Rita takes from her education from Bryant is that she has a choice with what to do with her life. She is able to pass her final exam, but that does not seem nearly as important as her newfound independence and choices. She is no longer intimidated by her fellow students (she’s smarter than them anyway) and is not tied down by a baby.
Bryant is something of a tragic hero, who is eventually removed from his job at the university and winds up in Australia. Afraid that Rita was starting to become everything that he feared he sinks further into his alcoholism as the film goes on, climaxing in a scene in which he collapses in a drunken stupor halfway through a lecture. There is also a sexual chemistry between him and Rita, which becomes more evident as he sees her becoming involved with another student. At one point Bryant asks Rita why she could not have knocked on his office door 20 years ago, as he now feels that he is beyond the point of saving.
But by the end of the film, having been given a new haircut by Rita, he looks as if he has a new lease on life as he boards the plane looking clear-eyed and proud of the time he has spent with his student.