shared joys – Educating Rita

BBC2 showed this film from 1983 again last night. It’s a favourite of mine. Written by Willy Russell from his own play and directed by Lewis Gilbert. It stars Michael Caine as Dr Frank Bryant an alcoholic university lecturer in English and formerly hopeful poet and Julie Walters as Rita, a working class hairdresser seeking self, and literary education.

It is a joy. It’s clearly about class and Rita’s struggle to be who she wants to be despite those around her frowning on this. In some ways it is therefore also about a woman’s struggle to be herself – she is under pressure from her husband and her father to have a child. And then she struggles with education itself – she’s sharp as anything but unknowing of so much of how things are done.

However, Frank likes her and she likes Frank. As she explains when he tries to duck out of teaching her. Is it that he didn’t want to spoil this wonderful woman he saw?

But for me what I love about this movie (which I understand departs from the original play by showing their broader lives) is the development of the characters over time. Now, I read Roger Ebert criticise it in some ways for having gone away from the play, and I do sense that some of the sense of them reading together is at times more prop than subject. But they do develop – Frank’s challenges come to challenge him, Rita in learning and changing is challenged herself. In a way the theme of education is much broader than formal education – a sentimental education for each. Both see in the other someone who recognises life and the theme of the film seems to be about finding a way to that, to poetry and not getting trapped in some way in the structures we give ourselves for life that seem to drain life out of it. Frank the man of poetry hating himself in academia, Rita who had to get out of the life she was in and find a way to find herself and in so doing learns new ways that can be challenged — and for both, as for us all, how learning can release this but also offers traps that whilst recognising learning and achievements may fetter us, affect us, divert us.

It strikes me it taught me a lot about what is poetic before I’d ever really started to think about it (I wonder how true I am to that) — and about what can seem so but just affects it. And teaches a lot about life, that just has to be lived, and is perhaps not in what is often given as the waypoints of life. In some ways I think it is so lucid in this development it might be missed (I think Ebert did miss it, but then he also thought this Scouser Rita was a Cockney (much as I love so many of his reviews, and he does have a point about the interactions over books (I want to read the play now)). He thought the ending disappointing, but I think not, but real I think and the reality of hope.

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