Sunday, February 2, 2014

Educating Rita (1983): Worth watching for Caine and Walters, and for the questions it raises

Title: Educating Rita
Director: Lewis Gilbert
Language: English
Rating: PG

I like this movie mostly because of Michael Caine and Julie Walters, and what they bring to their characters. But the filmmakers could have taken more time to explore the way good books can change people and looked deeper into how people teach and discuss literature. (I would have also changed the soundtrack, which gets repetitive.)

But Michael Caine and Julie Walters working together make the movie worth watching.

Rita (Julie Walters) and Frank (Michael Caine) in Educating Rita

As Dr. Frank Bryant, Caine is a charming mess. He's a literature professor, witty and fun to talk to, but also burned out. He's got drinking problems that are endangering his job. He seems to have reached the limits of himself, taken himself as far as he thinks he can go, and now that he sees that it's gotten him nowhere and that the view is crap, he's self-destructing.

Susan (who calls herself Rita at the start of the movie) is a hairdresser who isn't satisfied with her life. She's married to a simple guy and should be happy making babies and going to the pub after work. Instead, she wants to study literature. She signs up for a course in adult education that winds up getting her one-on-one tutelage from Frank. Walters plays Susan with a no-nonsense freshness that's wonderful to watch. Even as her character becomes more sophisticated in the course of the movie, she manages more or less to stay steady and keep her refreshing directness; she changes, but her level-headedness and self-awareness will hopefully keep her from becoming like Frank.

That's one of the things that worries Frank - that Susan will turn into him. He likes Susan, and her untutored, honest opinions on the books she reads. He's afraid that the more she studies, the more she'll become like him or like too many of his colleagues: disillusioned, mannered, pretentious, all genuine enthusiasm lost. He wants to spare her from that. And, though he won't admit it, he's also afraid she won't have a use for him anymore. Not only will she leave him behind; with her education, she might also come to see right through him and perceive his emptiness. On the one hand, he doesn't want her to be blindly enamored of him; he wants her to read his own poetry and recognize that it's crap. On the other hand, he likes that she respects him and turns to him.

For Susan, the challenge is to study and grow without exchanging one narrow life for another. She leaves behind her working class neighborhood, but what if she gets trapped in another kind of narrow life (albeit one with more social cachet)? She wants to study literature to expand her mind and her possibilities in life. The danger is that instead of growing, she'll be contorting herself; not just polishing the roughness off her accent, but also blunting her eagerness and genuineness.

How will she stay genuine through it all? (Through some combination of her own wisdom, Frank's insights, and what she understands from her readings?) This could have been better explored; I wanted to see more of Frank and Rita really studying literature together, not just sharing some excerpts from books. What is transforming about literature? Why did Frank lose touch with the written word and get sucked in too much by the surrounding culture of pettiness and sophistication? What are the limits of books and their effect on us? Books change you, but you also have to bring yourself to the books; you have to let the text speak to you. In some ways, it's similar to how you connect with people.

The movie ends with Frank and Rita about to explore new possibilities in life. I won't say what these are, only their story shows how it's possible to stagnate and lose touch with yourself anywhere. This deep personal dissatisfaction can't be soothed with addictions (drink, in Frank's case) or by going along passively with the life that other people plan out for you, which in Susan's case would've been to have kids and not think too much.

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