Educating Rita (1983) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4) : When the movie doesn’t believe in characters

 The main problem of Lewis Gilbert’s “Educating Rita”(1983) is it does not believe in its two characters much. If the movie just had concentrated on the dynamics between these interesting people, the result could have been a lot, or a little at least, better than what we get now. However, it pads their story with useless elements, and that is the major mistake of this movie. Whenever it does not have two good characters created by two fabulous performers on the screen, the movie loses its power in most cases, and, alas, that happens quite frequently throughout the story. While enjoying good parts of it, I lost my interest minute by minute.

 This is the good example where a nice play loses considerable amount of potential when it is adapted on the screen. After watching Willy Russell’s famous original play on the stage in Seoul a few years ago, I came to like the movie less than my initial watching in 2002. The play itself was lean, brisk, witty, and entertaining to watch with only two characters on the stage in less than two hours. Although the education itself was not so visible on the stage, the banter between two characters sold the story as well as the relationship between them. Unfortunately, the makers of the movie forgot or overlooked what makes the play tick on the stage, and the movie swayed from that from time to time while becoming nearly ponderous at times.

 The story is very familiar to you even if you have not seen the movie. It is about how two very different characters incidentally meet each other on their paths, how the relationship grows out between them, and how that relationship changes both of them in the end. We know the formula, and we know what stations the story will stop and pass by, and there are many movies based on that premise with “Pygmalion”(1938) and “My Fair Lady”(1964) as the prime examples.

 Professor Higgins of this time is an incompetent middle-aged English literature professor named Frank(Michael Caine). Frank is a typical burned-out case stuck in campus. As an ex-poet, he had given up poetry for a long time and his interest in his classes is more or less than in poetry. He is more interested in alcohol(he hides his whiskey bottle behind the books in his office) and does not give a damn about coming to his class in inebriated state. As long as he does not commit such a thing like “rape on a grand scale”, nobody in the administration will make a fuss about him anyway, and he has been going along with that while behaving like some drunken sage, which he is not, of course.

Tim Piggott-Smith(Frank) and Laura Dos Santos(Rita) in 2010 London revival (courtesy of Catherine Ashmore)

   One day, he comes across a life force of his lifetime. Her name is Susan(Julie Walters), who prefers to be called Rita. This young cockney married hairdresser has wanted and searched for something better that cannot be found in her working class life, so she signed up for the university program named The Open University and Frank is assigned as her reluctant tutor. He accepted his new assignment mainly for money, and, as he shamelessly admits, he is not a good teacher anyway. But Rita is persistent, and she thinks Frank needs help.

  So the education begins – and the start is rickety for them. Frank cannot help but marvel about Rita’s spirit as well as her illiteracy. About the solution for the problem inherent in certain Ibsen’s play, she gives him astoundingly short answer. In case of literature criticism assay, she includes the reference to Harold Robbins’ novels. Nevertheless, her desire to learn is indomitable, so she gets better while several books and plays and poems are quoted and phrased and exchanged between them on the screen. After the interlude for her summer school and his summer vacation in France, Rita seems to be a lot different from what she was at the beginning – and Frank does not like it because he comes to love what she was while his idealism awakened by her fresh energy.

 Although the names like Blake, Forster, Wordsworth, and Chekhov are mentioned in a superficial way without delving into them seriously, the movie could have gotten away with that fault. Frank and Rita are engaging characters. The interactions between them are the key moments of the story, and Caine and Walters are good sparring partners with nice chemistry when they are together. Whenever they begin the conversation, the movie becomes lively and joyful and it almost sells the story to us.

Park Yong-su(Frank) and Lee Seung-Bee(Rita) in 2008 South Korean revival (courtesy of NewsHankuk)

 Sadly, Russell, who adapted his own play, seemed to be not so confident about his material, and he did lots of unnecessary things in his adaptation. Unlike the stage version, he surrounds his main characters with shallow supporting characters. They do not carry much weight in the story, and most of them, including Rita’s insensitive husband, her flamboyant new roommate, and Frank’s secretary/lover who cheats on him, could only be mentioned in the dialogues like the original play. In fact, their scenes feel so redundant that it would not have made much difference if they had been cut from the movie.

 To make the matters worse, this redundancy dilutes the intensity in the drama as a result. While the stage version quickly jumps between one scene from another at Frank’s office, the movie totters along the storyline while jammed with what happens outside Frank and Rita’s relationship and the campus. The good moments are buried by these lifeless scenes as a consequence. The ending feels very artificial and Russell unwisely added the extra scene to his original ending. In addition, the music by David Hertschel, a synthesizer score imitating chamber music, is so annoyingly dated that it reminds me trying to be hip is the shortcut to being old-fashioned.


 Caine and Walters won Golden Globe and BAFTA awards and were nominated for Oscar; They deserved them. Julie Walters, who played the role in the original London play, is delightful as the heroine. Although her character becomes less interesting after the transformation and we miss her former self like Frank, Walters is still good to watch despite a little stagy at times. Although this was her breakthrough performance at that time, it took another extra years for her to be fully noticed by us with her another Oscar-nominated performance in “Billy Elliot”(2000) and a supporting part in Harry Potter series.

 Michael Caine is simply fantastic, and this is one of the best performances in his career. Even when in bad movies, he is rarely uninteresting, and what he does in the constraints of the story is something to behold. Not only he is very funny in the delivery of lines, but also he is very subtle in characterization. With his weary eyes and tired facial expressions, Caine conveys  a lot about his character including self-pity and ennui to us; we instinctively feel Frank’s inner thoughts and feelings even when he does not say much. The less I like the movie, the more I admire Caine’s meticulous performance.

 The movie is not so satisfying or not so disappointing overall, but it is still enjoyable and charming to watch because of a wonderful duo performance the movie ironically trapped in itself during its attempt to opening up for them. Considering several movies that are successful with focusing on the limited space and performances from the stage plays(e.g. “Slueth”(1972)- which incidentally has another good performance by Caine), it is quite regrettable that the movie did neither trust nor serve two talented performers well. If only the movie had just let them do what they could and observed them without doing anything.

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2 Responses to Educating Rita (1983) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4) : When the movie doesn’t believe in characters

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Educating Rita (1983) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4) : When the movie doesn’t believe in characters | Seongyong's Private Place --

  2. Martin Purdy says:

    Rita’s character is from Liverpool, not exactly a cockney 🙂

    SC: Oops.

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