Though its most obvious debt is to Shaw's Pygmalion, Educating Rita has much
of the wit and grit of the British New Wave dramas of two decades earlier. But
Willy Russell's script, from his own stage play (also starring Julie Walters),
combines hard-edged social realism with a lightly-worn, spirited humour. This is
a comedy of contrasts, immediately juxtaposing the appearance of the sparky
young hairdresser with that of her middle-aged tutor. Walters' Rita sports a
peroxide-blonde hairdo with pink highlights and wears an array of bright
outfits; Michael Caine, who bulked out and grew unkempt curls to play Frank, is
dressed throughout in drab, faded shades.
Director Lewis Gilbert also contrasts Rita's claustrophobic home (where her
husband symbolically takes a hammer to one of the walls) with the leafy, open
spaces of the university campus which, she says, give her "room to breathe".
However, Rita considers herself a 'half-caste', adrift from both her
working-class background and the world of academia. This central dilemma is
highlighted in a pair of mirrored scenes. In the first, Rita arrives for a
dinner party at Frank's house but flees after peeking at the other guests
through the front window. Subsequently, she retreats to her local pub but,
looking in through the glass doors, feels similarly isolated and
Rita's uncomfortable relationship with her surroundings is further underlined
in David Hentschel's score. A florid piece of classical music punctuates her
scenes in the university with comic effect, while a melancholic synth theme
accompanies the dinner party episode. This poignant theme recurs when Denny
cruelly tosses Rita's copy of Chekhov's plays onto a bonfire. The scene is given
a more upbeat light counterpoint when Rita burns one of her own essays in
Frank's study, insisting she must do better.
Walters cuts a strong and sympathetic figure as Rita, and the film
showcases her considerable skills as a comedienne. The montage in which Rita
tries on an assortment of over-the-top outfits (and accompanying identities) for
Frank's dinner party reminds us of Walters' long partnership with Victoria Wood.
The warmth of her performance and Russell's positive message of self-discovery
won the film a wide audience on its release, paving the way for Gilbert and
Russell's still more celebrated later collaboration, Shirley Valentine (1989),
which shared Educating Rita's understated feminism.