Julie Walters and Michael Caine. I mean, we talk about the on-screen chemistry between acting folk, likely when it is either not meant to be, or works like a charm. And charm is something both of these British acting heavyweights give off as naturally as rain in April. From a purely British perspective of course. Rain comes and goes as it pleases, but is generally a constant on this isle. And so it is, with the effortless, always impressive acting chops of Dame Julie and Sir Michael. From 1983, the great bell needs a reminder ring that they worked together on the brilliant Educating Rita, and that this is indeed a milestone of cinema.
Julie Walters was well-known in the UK pre-1983 probably for her comedy work with the late Victoria Wood. The instant success of Educating Rita catapulted Walters into the huge film limelight. The actress continued to flourish on UK television (man oh man, of course she did), while making further impressions on the big screen with eye-catching performances over the years. Personal Services, Prick Up Your Ears, Buster, securing a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Billy Elliot, more recently the Paddington films, oh and of course, the Harry Potter series.
Then there’s Michael Caine. That jolly nice fellow can claim to have worked with the likes of Carol Reed and Lewis Gilbert as he rose to fame. Of course, Gilbert’s Alfie was the breakthrough, while The Ipcress File, The Italian Job, Get Carter, A Bridge Too Far, are just a few of the films associated with Caine prior to working with Lewis Gilbert again in 1983 with Educating Rita. Two Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor would come his way via Hannah and Her Sisters and The Cider House Rules came later. As well as a recent flourish of key roles in Christopher Nolan films (including the voice of Fortis Leader communicating with Tom Hardy in last year’s Dunkirk).
The last time I sat down to watch Educating Rita, the film moved me, made me laugh, had me invested in these two characters, like I had never seen it before. But I had. And perhaps not enjoyed it this much. There’s something about my own status and development over the years to that, but goes to show how Educating Rita has aged extremely well, rather than wilted over time like many of the films from the 1980s. Julie Walters and Michael Caine play student Rita and professor Frank Bryant respectively. And they are in all intents and purposes, their initial encounter, unique rapport, and development of their characters, the entire film.
Based on his own stage play, Willy Russell adapts this gem for the screen with a deft eye for what we find funny and real on film. Bringing together a working-class 26 year-old woman and an Open University professor casually plodding through alcoholism, an unlikely match-up. The screenplay chews zero fat in building an unforgettable relationship. And this is not a love story, or the tale of an affair, or the challenges of romantic compatibility. Russell’s depiction of human bond is through the perceptions of class and lifestyle, and more refreshingly, the way views of such can be shattered through cordial liaisons.
Educating Rita opens with Dr Frank Bryant (Caine) sitting aimlessly, as his adult learners (and us) wonder if he is actually paying attention. He is just drunk it appears. It’s a perfect opening exchange, this guy is clearly fed-up. When young woman, Rita, enters the film, she is standing in the doorway – like something out of The Searchers were it applicable. Rita is brash, quick-talking, her presence cuts through Frank’s lingering life daze immediately. He is paying attention, though it may not be at the view from his window or the picture on his wall he says he hasn’t looked at in 10 years.
So, that chemistry between Walters and Caine is explosive, humorous, instantly relatable, and perhaps the strands of their personalities will benefit the other. They are from different walks of life to some extent, “Do you know Yeats?” he asks her about the poet, “The wine lodge?” is her genuine response. And then the explanation of the word assonance, which Rita translates as getting the rhyme wrong. How can we argue with such a viewpoint?
We soon discover Frank’s wife is having an affair with his friend no less. When she wasn’t expecting him home so early, she wonders why he was not at the pub (as usual, we guess). That he changed his mind about going to the pub show’s Rita’s influence to some degree already. And when Rita writes an essay on E.M. Forster she cross references some of the points with some pulp fiction she’s read. We never find out exactly what, or how, but Frank, with his professor hat on figuratively, states this is a no-no. But it’s creative thinking. We know that, and so does he.
Their rapport, as teacher-student I might add, with the capacity of such mature outlooks, is uncannily comforting. “Forster gets on my tits” Rita exclaims as they stroll the grounds, “Show me the evidence.” They both chuckle. It’s neither literal nor perverted. Rather a crystal clear example of their familiar bond.
Now they know each other, and as the film rolls on, Rita and Frank begin to face that they may not belong in their own individual worlds as much as they assumed. As the audience, impartial to some degree, we can accept this sooner than they. This is somethimg they have to figure out for themselves.
Frank sees value in Rita, her expressive narure, just the way she is. And he is hesitant about wanting to teach her because of this. Why slice through such original thinking? Given her personality, and that not many around her are giving her a chance, she is often too defensive to see that Frank is trying to convey his admiration. When Rita’s unsupportive husband finds out she was on the pill, he burns her books in the garden. The tear in her eye as she watches Cheykov Plays in flames is as poignant a moment as to define her longing for the self-satisfaction shackles to be gone.
The alliance between Rita and Frank is one to route for the entire time. Frank is somehow liberated by this woman, we and Rita make the assumption he has laid off the bottle recently. And Rita herself is hardly happier in her literary education bubble. One scene, while working as a waitress, Rita overhears a discussion about authors, and leans over to correct the educated types. There’s cracks and bumps along the road, as with any companionship, but not for one moment do you wish them to be separated.
Educating Rita is a small triumph in all its rich characterisations, splendid writing, and a certain realistic finesse from the direction by Lewis Gilbert. He blends comic moments with drama as though taken from our own lives. Julie Walters and Michael Caine are terrific, two established acting talents filling up every inch of the screen. Both won the top acting prizes at the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs for this, also gaining nominations at the Academy Awards. One of cinema’s very finest double acts.