Working class scumbags, eh? As that odious old crone Thatcher once mused:
“There may be poverty because people don’t know how to budget, don’t know how to spend their earnings, but now you are left with the really hard fundamental character—personality defect.”
And that’s what’s going on in Educating Rita, the 1983 film directed by Lewis Gilbert (1920-2018). It explores the concept of class, lazy poor people, hairdressers, and Michael Caine. Good stuff, eh? And a fine film!
Educating Rita and the Rise of the Working Class
Adapted from Willy Russell’s eponymous stage play, Educating Rita is an award-winning British film.
It arrived at a time when the industry in the UK wasn’t really capable of much, being massively underfunded compared to the US.
But thanks to fantastic lead performances from Michael Caine and Julie Walters, it delivered big results.
Educating Rita was also part of the GCSE school curriculum, which is how we came to watch it in 1998 during our English Literature class. And it’s kind of stuck with us ever since.
Like a glibber version of The Madness of King George (1994), Educating Rita is packed fill of British idiosyncrasies and quirky charm.
It stars Michael Caine as Dr. Frank Bryant, a washed up alcoholic university lecturer who’s fed up with his job.
Meanwhile, there’s Julie Walters as Susan “Rita” White. She’s a 26-year-old working-class hairdresser who’s also sick of her mundane daily routine and wants to escape the marriage, family, kids trap she finds boring.
She randomly signs up to an Open University course on English Literature hoping to find something more profound in her life.
This leads her path across Dr. Bryant’s and the two form an unlikely relationship.
She learns from him, whilst he finds a new way of seeing the world through her earnestness and enthusiasm.
And yet must also overcome the backlash against her from friends and family, particularly her husband Denny )Malcolm Douglas).
He doesn’t get the whole education lark and wants her to produce offspring ASAP. This affects the quickly of Rita’s work.
Denny also burns Rita’s books at one point in a grand act of being a dickhead.
But this is the class war aspect. Denny isn’t being a philistine, as such, more he’s horrified to see the woman he loves disappearing into a world he doesn’t understand—the highest classes.
He just doesn’t express himself in the way he needs to. His self-worth isn’t there. Rita is trying to find hers. The clash causes upheaval and conflict, despite her newfound self-confidence.
And as Rita adapts to her newfound intellectual freedom, Dr. Bryant finds his cynical worldview returning. This is due to Susan/Rita ditching her former vigour and impish sense of humour in favour of educated elitism.
And to her credit, Rita also twigs to this and eventually finds her new routine to be superficial and lacking the answers she’d sought for her life.
The film ends with Dr. Bryant taking a sabbatical to Australia, welcoming the possibility of a change of scene.
End of film! And a very fine one, too, with excellent performances from Caine and Walters. A fantastic partnership there.
It’s one of those quintessentially British films from the 1980s. Before we went off and got ourselves a half decent budget!
The likes of Withnail & I (1987) and Trainspotting (1996) would later help lay down the foundations for the importance of British cinema.
But for a long time Educating Rita stood as arguably Blighty’s finest effort on the grand cinematic stage. And for this we must doff our cap towards it.
Educating Rita’s Production
Off its £4 million budget (very high for the time!) the film was a modest success, earning back over £10 million.
Dolly Parton was the Columbia studio’s first choice for the role of Rita, but Julie Walters got the job instead after she’d starred in the stage productions. This was her feature film debut.
Filming took place in Dublin, despite the film’s plot being in an unnamed English university.
Nominated for three Oscars, it also won Caine and Walters numerous awards.
Julie Walters (34 at the time) won her first BAFTA for the film, presented to her by the super handsome Christopher Reeve. And she looks beautiful, too!
For our American readers wondering about the noises emerging from her mouth—that’s a Brummie accent. She’s from Birmingham.
Topical humour alert!
And she managed to accept her award without punching anyone in the face!