Educating Rita (1983)

Educating Rita (1983), directed by Lewis Gilbert.

I missed this one in the theaters and just got around to it. I remember it was a favorite among a circle of women friends who had left their homes and husbands and moved to a university town to change their lives. This movie was their story.

Rita is a brassy, energetic working class woman who wants to "discover meself" thorough literature and begins attending the open university. She doesn't fit in there, or, after a while, with her own people any more. Julie Walters did the role on stage and this was her first film. She's prominent these days as the Weasley mom in the Harry Potter films.

Michael Caine is Frank, her professor, a failed poet who is comfortably burned out. He keeps a bottle of whiskey behind The Lost Weekend on his shelf and is often drunk in his office and in class. Rita is a welcome shock to him: a student with a raw, honest passion for books. He has a crush on her, but as her education continues and she doesn't return his interest, he declines even further. A bittersweet ending.

It's dialogue heavy as is usual with a stage play, but the film opens it up nicely. During the first half Frank's lines seem more like the author's sentiments, counseling and encouraging Rita. At 1h50m it's a bit long for the story, but they use the time for something I didn't expect.

Frank admires Rita because her passion is fresh and untrained, vital in a way that the scholars have lost. It's what he wants for his own poetry but can't achieve. He is reluctant to transform her into a student who works with theory and criticism rather than experiencing the immediate joy of reading. But it's what she wants. In the end she tells him: "I took the exam and answered the way they wanted. But I had the choice."

This is a distinction I don't remember seeing in a film before: the difference between the common reader or film lover, and the academic who picks apart the subject while no longer loving it.