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Cinemalphabet: E is for Educating Rita (1983)

February 5, 2011

The radiant Julie Waters as Rita

There’s a scene half way through Educating Rita where Rita – played with gusto by the incandescent Julie Waters – details her evening spent with family and friends rather than going to a dinner party at the invitation of her tutor Dr. Frank Bryant – Michael Caine in his absolutely best role. Rita, a hairdresser by trade, is having a difficult time navigating the expectations of being working class woman. Rita’s world is tossed about by the academic stirrings within her and the conflicts brought on by those longings. Anyway, she tells Frank about sitting in a pub that used to feel like “home” and feeling very much like an outsider. Everyone around her is singing some old timey “ain’t we got fun” kind of song and she doesn’t want to know the words anymore. Rita glances over at her mother, notices she’s crying as asks her why. Her mother says, “There must be better songs to sing than this.” which becomes Rita’s mission statement.

Everyone has sung the song of other people’s expectations at least once in their lives and Rita’s heartbreak in this and many other scenes is palpable. I’m telling you, Walters BAFTA winning performance shuts this whole thing down. Much is made of Caine, who is in fact as good as you might have heard, but this is Walters’s moment. She’s in that cohort of tremendous British talents such as Eileen Atkins and Helen Mirren (she co-starred with Mirren in the overlooked delight Calendar Girls). She also wowed us in Billy Elliot. This performances alone make this film a treat, but the story will have you talking about sexual agency, class and access to education long after that Fisher-Price keyboard – apparently used for the soundtrack – plays its last tinny note.

Rita is looking for a new song to sing and it is this exploration and not Pygmalion framing of the story I find most transgressive. Rarely in film are the yearnings of working class women framed with so much honesty or complexity. Rita is often shown naive, but NEVER ignorant; a distinction absent from most depictions of working class women.

Michael Caine in a Boogie Down production.

If Educating Rita is a love story – and I believe it very much is – it’s the love story Samantha Jones would approve of. It is the kind where the woman says, “I might love you, but I love me MORE.” and act accordingly. This too is transgressive. While Pygmalion stories often deal with the creator falling in love with the creation, there almost no conversation regarding how the creation feels about the creator. Educating Rita tells that story.

Rita might adore Frank and might even love him – I believe she did – and she might be naive, but she’s nobody’s fool. She knows there is no need to be extracting yourself from the frying pan of one limiting relationship and jumping into the fire of another limiting relationship. Boozy, scruffy nerfherder boyfriends might work in outer space, but on planet earth they are the guys who can keep all your perishables cold with the chill of their emotional distance.

Frank and Rita

Roger Ebert, who didn’t seem to dig the film beyond Caine’s performance had this to say:

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say they both fall into love with the remake job they’d like to do on each other. Caine sees Walters as a fresh, honest, unspoiled intelligence. She sees him as a man who ought to sober up and return to his first love, writing poems. The idea of the curmudgeon and the Cockney was not new when Bernard Shaw wrote “Pygmalion,” and it is not any newer in “Educating Rita.” But it could have been entertaining, if only I’d believed they were reading those books.

And while I respect and to a certain extent agree with his analysis, I think he missed the point.

Firstly, the books were not the point. The setting was just – well – setting. Moreover, there’s something actually refreshing about depicting folks falling in love for the reasons folks often do fall in love: to fix something in themselves by fixing someone else. The fact we’re made uncomfortable by this realization only enhances the film rather than spoiling it. Rita comes from a world devoid of any sexual or emotional agency. She hides birth control pills in the floorboards and gets hounded by her father about her reproductive choices. Everywhere someone is trying to tell this woman what the fuck she should do with her body. Bryant is the only person suggesting things she ought to do with her mind.

Makeover trope subverted!

Throughout the film Rita adopts various personas in an attempt to fully inhabit her body with, mixed degrees of success. She also navigating the class conflicts of identifying as working class while being surrounded by folks – and to a certain degree even Frank – who either regard working class people seeking education as a curiosity or a bother.

And that dinner party Frank invited her to… Rita knew the score. When she called Frank out on his lack of class awareness with a stinging, “I’m nobody’s court jester.” I wanted to jump up and cheer. When do you see marginalized folks really taking the default setting folks to task in a way that forces them to own their privilege? I mean when do you see it on film and done so shockingly devoid of melodrama?

You don’t.

If you’re looking for a female focused film devoid of end credit weddings or Shirley Valentine (great film too) Pina Colada twist of fate endings, Educating Rita should be at the top of your queue. It’s got heart, cheek and wit for days. It has two powerhouse actors doing the best work of their careers, who have massive chemistry. It’s the kind of film they just don’t really make anymore.

Oh yeah, the pr0nny sounding title is in some ways a joke. Everyone’s getting an education in this film; it’s not just Rita.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. February 5, 2011 9:43 am

    I absolutely loved Educating Rita. Although not British, I come from a similar working-class background where education wasn’t really stressed and books were rarely read. Even going to college, I always felt like I was trying on different identities that weren’t really mine.

    “Rita is often shown naive, but NEVER ignorant; a distinction absent from most depictions of working class women.”

    This is so important. Not only is it rare to see working-class women on screen, but nuanced depictions of working-class women are entirely absent.

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