Judge Brett Cullum insists this film is more than just one of the approximately 4,783 films Michael Caine has done in the past twenty-two years.
Dr. Frank Bryant: Did you know that Macbeth was a maggoty apple? Not many people know that!
Educating Rita is a likable film from 1983 that features two very strong performances, a smarter than average script, and a Pygmalion plot that never gets old in my book. Inspirational teacher movies are a dime a dozen between the likes of Mr. Holland's Opus, Dead Poets Society, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and fifteen million other titles I could come up with. What makes this film stand out is that it's the student who is the inspirational figure here, and she's a real joy to watch. Good drama lets you see a character's journey, and Educating Rita is all about a working class hair dresser finding herself through higher learning. It's a highly entertaining and inspirational movie even almost twenty-five years after it was made.
Facts of the Case
Julie Walters (Billy Elliott) plays Rita, a working class English woman who has enrolled in a university as an adult student. Michael Caine (Cider House Rules) plays a washed-up professor of literature named Frank Bryant, who is assigned to tutor her in literature and higher learning in general. While Rita begins to discover herself and grow throughout the experience, Frank seems to slip deeper and deeper in to the depths of alcoholism and depression. Can she redeem him? Can he get her to understand the intricacies of great literature?
Both Michael Caine and Julie Walters were nominated for Academy Awards in 1983 for their performances in this film. Both give breathtaking performances full of rich subtlety you rarely find in movies. There's a small moment where Rita is on a bus sitting next to a snobby upper crust student, and she begins to try and engage him in a literary conversation. Near the end of it she simply smiles and says, "I'm a student too." It's a small moment, but Walters perfectly captures the pride of a woman who is chasing an elusive dream of education. Michael Caine gives us the usual treatment he delivers—tossed-off sarcasm and remote caring—but nobody does it quite like him. He's reunited here with a director who knows him (Lewis Gilbert, who directed him in his breakthrough hit Alfie), so the actor is allowed to do what he does best. The movie relies on this pair, and they have chemistry to spare, as well as ample acting chops to pull it off beautifully.
The film should be required viewing for anyone about to attend college. I remember being a snotty eighteen-year-old who headed off to an institution of higher learning thinking it was my right to seek out a degree. Once I was there, I had several classes with a middle-aged woman who was enrolled to finish her degree. We all would sit in the room wondering why this piece of paper was so important to her, and why she had waited so long to pursue it. The truth is college is about learning, but it is also a journey of self-discovery often lost on people too young to realize its value. Educating Rita drives all of this home spectacularly, without ever feeling heavy-handed or pompous. It's a well-crafted tale that has a lot of love for its characters, and offers a wonderful slice of life drama with just the right amount of comedy.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
At 111 minutes, Educating Rita seems a touch long. It was adapted from a play, and I imagine they padded out many scenes to expand the world first shown in the theater. The script was nominated for an Oscar as well, but it could have been slightly tighter. I don't mind the running length, given the fact we care so much about these people, but it is a little daunting watching the film after years of Hollywood fare that frequently streamlines plots.
The DVD disappoints in a couple of areas. First off, the transfer is riddled with grain and always seems a touch soft. From the first glimpse of the Columbia Pictures logo I noticed this was not a film that went through much in the way of restoration. Never mind the whole "mastered in high definition" label slapped across the back of the box—grain is still distracting even at a high bit rate. The sound mix is unremarkable, and slightly muffled as well. It's a pity that a film that relies exclusively on dialogue has to sound this muddy. And there are no extras at all. Caine and Walters are both very active today, and both are recently featured in blockbusters such as Batman Begins and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I would have loved to hear their take on the film, but alas no commentary or interview segments are to be had. In all honesty the only advantage this release has over previous VHS editions is the widescreen transfer, which is not even anamorphic.
Seek this title out mainly for the stellar performances of the two lead actors. They have a magic which explains why Julie Walters and Michael Caine are often Oscar contenders, as well as highly sought-after thespians, even decades later. Educating Rita is a little gem of a movie with so much joy to offer it would be a shame to pass it up. Unfortunately Sony hasn't given it much respect on DVD, but thankfully it is finally available in this format.
Guilty of being a movie that will put a smile on your face, Educating Rita is a great title when you need a little inspiration.
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