No. 50: Educating Rita

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Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

I begin my odyssey into 1983 with what must have been a surprise box office hit at the time, Lewis Gilbert’s big screen adaptation of Willy Russell’s play Educating Rita. Despite being heavy on dialogue and featuring just one big name star (Michael Caine), this little character drama managed a very respectable $14.6 million at the box office in September of ’83 and landed three Oscar nominations (Caine for Best Actor, Julie Walters for Best Actress and Russell for Screenplay).

Before I get into the specifics of the film, I want to talk about a few things that jumped out at me early on that I expect will be regular features of my 1983 movie-watching experience. First, there’s the score, which is performed entirely on the synthesizer. I imagine that the emergence of the synthesizer and the ease with which a film could be scored using the machine made it an extremely popular option for filmmakers in 1983, but when we look at the history of film music, nothing sounds as dated and non-timeless today as the synthesizer scores of the ’80s.

Second, and some of you cinephiles may be able to shed some light on this, but there is certainly a definable quality to the look and quality of film itself from this era. Even films from previous decades seem to look more lush today. I’m not sure if it was new lighting techniques or perhaps the material used to make 35mm film at the time, but early ’80s films often seem to have a bit of a dirty tinge to them.

While Educating Rita suffers from all of these early ’80s trademarks, the content of the film holds up rather well in 2009. The premise of the film is anything but original, yet another spin on the classic myth Pygmalion. But unlike adaptations like My Fair Lady and Pretty Woman, playwright Willy Russell took this story to an interesting new territory by using it to explore the British class system as well as making the two main characters far more intriguing and complexly motivated.

The film begins with Rita, played by a very young Julie Walters who shows every bit of the working class British sass she would later show in Billy Elliot and the Harry Potter films, entering the office of Dr. Frank Bryant, player by Michael Caine. Rita is a straight-talking, uneducated young married woman looking to take college night classes from Dr. Bryant because she’s tired of having her life options limited to having babies or going down to the pub.

It’s starting to look predictable already – Dr. Bryant is going to try to teach Rita to be a civilized woman but along the way it will be Rita that teaches Dr. Bryant, right? Thankfully, the film doesn’t go that route and Dr. Bryant begins to realize that making Rita into the intellectual she desperately wants to be may actually kill a beautiful and pure intellect. Rita’s completely fresh approach to the material they are studying occasionally leads her to make humorously brilliant observations that could never be made by the finely tuned brains of Dr. Bryant’s other students.

Bryant’s internal conflict brings up a darker portion of his past, the fact that he has become an alcoholic after failing as a poet. There are a number of clever scenes involving Bryant’s girlfriend and the colleague she is cheating on him with but the movie is almost always at a standstill when Bryant and Rita aren’t in the same room.

Meanwhile, we also follow Rita’s struggle to decide whether or not she’ll truly be happier once she’s educated or whether it’s simply “a different song to sing”, as Bryant puts it.

The film never goes the places you expect it to go and gives us truly heart-wrenching emotional moments with both main characters as they desperately try to escape their painful paths through each other. It’s a typically powerful and vulnerable performance from Caine and a surprisingly interesting performance from Walters.

This is definitely a nice gem I wouldn’t have seen or probably even heard of without going through with this project. Every year at the movies there are hidden gems that bring us rich and interesting characters and performances and those are sadly the most likely films to be forgotten as time passes. I highly recommend checking this one out on Netflix if you’re a fan of British character dramas or of Michael Caine, who delivers some of the best work of his career here.