Feb 23rd: “Educating Rita” (1983)
Celebrating 28 days of underrated 80s cinematic treasures.
This is one of those films that either comes to you as home set by your English literature professors, or simply, caught by chance on its reruns on television. If you’re lucky, there is a third method which blends the best of both worlds: seeing it in the theatre first, and then seeking the movie almost immediately afterwards.
There’s a magic when it comes to how Willian Russell create dialogue. It’s not that it just flows, but that it makes you stare in anticipation for the next come-back. There’s nothing left behind in this. There are no throw-away lines, and there’s absolutely no room for improvisation.
William Russell’s play “Educating Rita” is a timeless classic that did something that is quite incredible. It made the pedestrian language of two, everyday characters, and made them sound new, fresh and compelling. It graced the stage first, and eventually became one of the most translated contemporary stage play in history. It was inevitable that it would become a film, and the only two that could have lit up the big screen in 1983 was Julie Walters in the title role, and Michael Caine as the disillusioned professor, Frank.
Rita is an almost thirty something hairdresser who has come to moment of crisis in her life. It’s the old familiar “is this all there is” moment that brings her to the conclusion that she must go back to school in an effort to stand out and become more in life. The world she lives in is safe and somewhat repetitive. Her husband Denny can’t think of anything worse. He has already accepted the world he lives in, and doesn’t see it as limited at all. He doesn’t want Rita to be anything but what she is, most likely for the sake of losing her in the process. She ends up in the classroom of Frank, a rarely sober professor of English literature who has his own dilemma in life. His life is no less predictable and no more challenging than hers. He too needs a shift. Drinking has become an art form. He’s brought his alcoholism to the classroom, with a bottle hidden behind shelf of books. Quite literally, he can no longer find escapism in the words of classic literature but hides behind it as a barrier that protects him from being anything more.
As the story goes, Rita and Frank learn more from each other than they have ever had from anybody else in their immediate world. There is an unrequited love that develops. Perhaps there’s agony in realising that they need each other to make great change in their life, but that they end up owing true to one another, with assurance that they were right to break the chains that made them unhappy.
If you’ve read it this far, and think that this is all too much of an heavy ordeal to sit through, then think again. The play is a worldwide hit for a reason. It translates into everybody’s lives and has the ability to reach on many levels. This is a story that keeps you hooked by two things: the head-to-head sports event that goes into the performances, and the delicious nature of the language that flows and wraps around every scene like a silk ribbon. In short, you can’t go wrong William Russell’s material. It’s funny, and it’s savage. It’s sharp and yet, tender. Putting two of the most veracious and versatile actors on the planet into these roles was to guarantee success.
I could have said hungry instead of veracious, but I wanted there to be something more to that previous sentence. A touch of alliteration goes a long way.
But wait. What is a commercially successful film doing in this list? Surely this doesn’t fit in the category of the underrated. Well, it’s not high on many people’s lists. Many can look at the cover or the poster and think: mundate people, having mundane adam-and-eve, existential problems. To some, the story screams pedestrian, ordinary, and there aren’t any lasers. It’s not aggressive, nor does it travel. The film is as contained as any slice of life. But it’s the words. It’s all about the words, and the poetic nature that is often dismissed. But it doesn’t get the rant and the rave that is deserved.
Put simply, this might have won awards, and yes, the play Educating Rita is still being revived — most recently and still running is the 40th anniversary revival, with the incredible Stephen Tompkinson as Frank and introducing Jessica Johnson as Rita.
As of 2021, tickets are still available.
What was I talking about? Oh yes… It’s underrated. So what I would conclude to this is that this can be a film that is more than just the cinematic release of a groundbreaking play. I have this in-built fear that, even though many will seek the movie because of the revival performances, but it is a film that has a look and feel of the era that it was set and made. The fear being that it could get stuck there can affect its audience appeal.
Also, this is a film for writers who are learning on the job. It’s a masterpiece in the world of written dialogue. It’s about growth. It’s about change, and taking the chance to be more than the sum of our parts. Overall, it’s about realising that the person who could trigger positive change, can waltz right in through that door, when you least expect them.
Written by: Stephen Radford