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Educating Rita (1983)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Educating Rita (1983)
35mm, 110 minutes, colour
DirectorLewis Gilbert
Production CompanyAcorn Pictures
ProducerLewis Gilbert
Co-producerWilliam P. Cartlidge
Screenplay / Stage PlayWilly Russell
PhotographyFrank Watts

Cast: Michael Caine (Dr. Frank Bryant); Julie Walters ('Rita', Susan); Michael Williams (Brian); Maureen Lipman (Trish); Jeananne Crowley (Julia)

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Rita is a young working-class woman with a burning desire for education. Enrolling on an Open University literature course, she is taken under the reluctant wing of a semi-alcoholic English professor, Frank.

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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 ill-at-ease.

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.

Chris Wiegand

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Video Clips
1. Party preparations (3:18)
2. The wedding (3:41)
3. Summer school (2:55)
4. Dying without Mahler (1:58)
Caine, Michael (1933-)
Gilbert, Lewis (1920-)
Russell, Willy (1947-)
Walters, Julie (1950-)
Female Protagonists