Educating Rita (1983)

screenshot from Educating Rita

Directed by: Lewis Gilbert
Screenwriter(s): Willy Russell
Starring: Michael Caine, Julie Walters, Maureen Lipman, Michael Williams
Genre: Comedy / Drama
Country: UK
Running time: 1h 46m
Rating: 10 out of 10

Educating Rita traces the relationship between Liverpudlian hairdresser Rita (Walters) and Dr Frank Bryant (Caine), an alcoholic university professor, both of whom have reached an impasse in their lives and need a new direction. Rita feels trapped by both her marriage and her life, which seems mapped out by her friends and family into motherhood and settling for what she’s got. Wanting to broaden her horizons, she joins the Open University to study English Literature and is assigned to Dr Frank Bryant.

Bryant, whose career is stalled and relationship has disintegrated, is initially disinterested and condescending, but is soon brought out of his self-pitying daze by Rita’s candour and enthusiasm. In the best acting performance of his not inconsiderable career, Caine makes Frank – alcoholic, unprofessional, rude, self-destructive, self-loathing – sympathetic rather than just pathetic.

Caine won Best Actor at the BAFTAs and the Golden Globes for his performance and, although nominated, lost out at the Oscars to Robert Duvall. Now, I think Duvall is one of the greatest actors alive and have nothing but respect for him but he was the only American nominated alongside four Brits (Caine, Tom Courtney, Albert Finney and Tom Conti).

As expected, Willy Russell’s script allows the characters and their relationship to develop realistically, never betraying them by settling for the formulaic. He’s also not afraid to show them in an unflattering light, as when Rita initially becomes one of those horrendously pretentious pseudo-intellectuals who lecture you on why you just aren’t evolved enough to understand the universal truths behind the juvenile scribblings of [fill in your own least favourite author or poet here]. But then Russell (Shirley Valentine) has always had a flair for strong, rich female characters.

Director Lewis Gilbert, who also helmed Alfie, coaxes outstanding performances from all his cast, not just Caine. First-timer Walters lights up the screen as Rita and was rightfully rewarded by the BAFTAs and the Golden Globes – but, like Caine, missed out at the Oscars.

In addition, there’s high-quality support from an under-used Maureen Lipman as Rita’s seemingly glamorous roommate (a performance which also saw her pick up a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the BAFTAs) and Michael Williams as the university vice-principal, who’s having a flagrant affair with Frank’s live-in girlfriend, which results in an running gag involving awkward phone calls.