I have swerved away from this film for a number of years after having been forced to study a scene from it at school back in the day and feeling a bit put off by some of the class comedy elements that felt a bit overwrought, but the film turned up on television last night and it turned out that it was the right time to give it a shot! It turned out to be fascinating and disturbing in equal measures but I'm leaning towards liking it very much, despite its parade of broad class caricatures. I think that a lot of British cinema has been indebted to this since in structure and themes (especially Billy Elliot), but there is a very interesting dark streak running underneath the action that really hit home on this particular viewing. I think you could also pair this up satisfyingly with Good Will Hunting too, of another working class person passed over at the 'correct' age yet almost inherently suited to the academic life belatedly getting their chance to prove their studying skills.
Rita (aka Susan) is a working class late 20s-something who decides to take an Open University course to 'improve herself', having become dissatisfied with the confines of her job as a hairdresser and expectations placed on her by the milieu into which she has been born and brought up. There has to be something more to life than just exchanging gossip in the salon and coming home to a loving but boring husband and going for drinks and singalongs in the pub every evening. The only change on the horizon appears to be having children, like every other young(ish) woman on the block (and that is what provides the final break with her husband and father in the middle of the film, at a family wedding where the younger than Rita bride is already four months pregnant, causing more ultimatums of Rita to knuckle down and do what is expected of her), but Rita wants to pursue something more and feels that 'educating herself' will provide the answer.
So she strides purposefully onto a university's hallowed grounds and barges into the room of the lecturer (though only so roughly because the door is conveniently stuck, not for any character-revealing uncouth reasons! Rita is 'uncultured', not uncouth!) that has been assigned to tutor her once a week by the OU, and finds Frank who turns out to be a washed up barely functioning alcoholic. Which perhaps amusingly suggests that the OU does not vet their teachers particularly well! Or perhaps more pointedly the suggestion that a university would assign their poorest teachers to do 'outreach' by teaching the part-time students in order to fulfill their remit in the most cursory of ways! Whilst Frank tries to get out of his duties (partially workshy and partially recognising that he cannot properly fulfil his duties as a teacher to someone as ambitious seeming as Rita?) and offers to send her to a different tutor, Rita demands that he teaches her because she finds him 'funny'. And things proceed from there, as Rita's interest in learning starts to rekindle some spark of passion in Frank also (both platonic and physical, which is Frank's fatal flaw, tying the two pleasures together even in as minor a way that occurs here), as he begins to stop drinking so much and get his life back together. But only for a little while...
So far, so conventional (albeit newly minted fresh conventions at this time), and indeed the first half of the film plays most comically broad, with Rita stumbling into respectable halls of learning and clattering down the cobbles of the quadrangle in high heels and mini-skirt. Frank is particularly (condescendingly?) amused by this but over time, and especially when Rita's home life starts to fall apart under the strain of her reaching for something beyond it, he decides to take Rita on as his personal project, in an almost Pygmalion manner. But, and this is where the film becomes really good, Rita's goals have not just ended with the decision to take an English Lit class to distract herself from her unfulfilling life for a year or two, but she has ambitions to remake herself on every level, and give herself not a specifically defined future but a lot of options for the future.
We will never see her future after this moment, because this is her supreme moment where life is at its most open to her. Will she go on to open the Body Shop, or just back to working in the Bistro as a 1920s styled flapper girl, waiting on the new generation of students and being able to impart her knowledge to them in surprising ways? It seems unlikely that she is going to immediately shack up with a man and have kids (she is just as bored and unimpressed by fellow student "Tiger" as she was by her husband Denny, despite the presence of "Tiger" spinning Frank off into his own jealous alcoholic binge at the end of the film), but will she be fulfilled in her new life? We will never know, and never should. It is triumphant and a great way to end the film, but arguably superficially so because it has manufactured the triumph of a multitude of possibilities that inevitably are going to get immediately closed off in the very next choice that Susan makes on leaving the airport, and one can only hope for the best for both Rita/Susan and Frank in their new lives. But I did particularly like that maybe that uncertainty about the future is getting at the ambivalent feeling of both pride and fear that a teacher may have for a beloved student at the end of their schooling going out into the harsh world, maybe (most likely) never to be seen or heard from again.
There are a lot of overwrought moments in the early section of the film to do with sketching in the working class milieu and Rita's relationship with husband Denny - Denny knocking out a wall of their house with a sledgehammer (perhaps implying potential domestic violence, albeit only taken out on the walls at this stage(!), and turned into a lovely moment where untutored in the art of demolition Rita decides to swing the sledgehammer herself and brings the ceiling crashing down! There is a suggestion that maybe if she had taken some interest in Denny's pursuits, as well as vice versa of course, that things might have worked out with them); after finding out that Rita is continuing to take the pill and thus frustrating his attempts at starting a family Denny frustratedly taking out his anger at her on her books by burning them in a bonfire in the back yard; the moment with the customer at the salon finding out that Rita is reading "Of Human Bondage" and commenting that her husband has "a lot of books like that" too! And of course the bluntly coarse father demanding grandchildren as the cowed and tearful mother looks on with no voice of her own left.
I am not entirely sure that I subscribe to this being 'realistic' so much as interestingly heightened to highlight the drama, and that working class milieu would be pretty smug feeling if it was not for Frank himself having his own issues back at home with his wife cheating on him with the head of the university! So even being 'educated' does not stop one from having a crappy home life and needing to move on for everyone's sake (I think it is important that both Frank and Rita/Susan encounter their other halves and wish them all the best with their new lives without too much regret although maybe a little moment of sad remembrance of a part of their lives that is now permanently closed off to them. Rita in particular running into Denny again with a heavily pregnant new wife who both seem beatifically happy with their new lives, whilst Rita herself has, maybe not a pang of regret but more a moment of wondering what could have been, even if she knows that she never really wanted that, or would have fit into that role as well as Denny's new beau. I think that brief moment is a very touching one for both characters in that scene, with no animosity between them helping to humanise Denny a bit more than just being the 'controlling male figure' into someone pursuing his own dreams too and, from the outside at least, achieving the life he wanted. Presumably that is how he sees Rita too, looking back at her). Most importantly I really like that Frank taking on Rita as a kind of 'pet project' starts off with him being slightly condescendingly, but well meaningly, amused by her manner (there is even an anti-Pygmalion scene where Frank wants Rita to come to a party as his home but it feels like one where he is showing his work in progress off to his colleagues, even if Frank did not particularly intend for it to be that way, and Rita makes an exit from that party before she even truly arrives by never going inside) which then eventually twists around (with the fateful separation of Rita going off to Summer School) to Rita having surpassed Frank in works that she has studied and has her own ideas about the meanings behind literature that she has not learnt directly from him.
Rita passes Frank by later on in the film in almost all ways from educational to social and cultural. As in the Army, Rita gets her old life entirely broken down and then builds up a new one in the manner most suitable to the new times in which she is living. Whilst Frank is a relic whom even the famously laissez faire world of academia is having trouble supporting. And this is where the ideas behind the film become truly fascinating, complicated and somewhat upsetting because whilst this film is Rita's 'triumph', I felt the most moved by Frank's perspective on Rita. It is a self-pitying one for the most part but I particularly loved that moment of Frank saying again that he does not want to teach Rita after reading her first essay, because it is an essay full of passion and interest in the book under discussion but which entirely fails as an academic essay in the way that one would expect in order to achieve a high mark under exam conditions. That moment of Rita demanding - nay, begging - Frank to just tutor her in the 'proper way to write an essay', is probably the most heartbreaking thing in the entire film, as Frank knows that he can mould Rita into just another one of his students writing the perfect paper to achieve the final qualification at the end of the course, but in doing so he is destroying the individuality and singular response to a piece of literature that makes Rita's essay unique to her worldview. Whilst Rita herself is not seeing the worth of what is going to be lost by trying to mould herself, and her thinking, to match the received current thinking on a topic that is the one that practically guarantees the high pass mark. But is Rita the one deluded about what she is losing, or is Frank deluded in thinking that the worth of a book lies in what it inspires inside a reader on a personal level? Maybe Frank is 'too damaged' by literature because he is too engaged with it? His crisis is entirely coming from within himself (his own internal demons to match Rita's more external issues of ambition in the face of existential ennui and controlling family members), whilst Rita herself has never been anything less than honest about being on this course to better herself, not better the cause of English literature with new and idiosyncratic takes.
When you come from a working class background, the suggestion appears, you do not have the luxury of indulging in a book for its own sake but it has to be acting as a practical stepping stone to the next thing in your outside, real world life too, otherwise it is wasted time spent frivolously. Which is kind of a monstrous attitude to place on literature and approach to come to any work of art with (the demand that it improve you, or be of a 'practical' purpose or else what is the point?), but that is the attitude that Rita has towards education, and it does not really change. It is celebrated by the film but there is always that undercurrent, as Frank says at one point, that "you have just exchanged singing one song for another", but Rita is the one whose approach chimes with the times, not his.
But these questions are only more heightened in recent times with students paying for their own education and both the student body and the government funding the institution now both demanding (with some cause, now that they have been coarsely monetised) to see a 'guaranteed return on investment' for shelling out their big bucks. Studying for personal development without a carefully planned out life or career goal stretching in front of you into which your current academic course fits is a thing of the past, whilst studying for a pre-determined end goal takes primacy. Maybe it was ever thus but it does feel as if Educating Rita came in at the start of this trend ramping up massively with the opening up of further education to the masses, working as another early 80s Thatcherite film celebrating the 'go getting entrepreneur doing it for themselves' (contrasting interestingly with the contemporaneous Brideshead Revisited TV series, nostalgically looking back at a past era where Universities were more associated with being boarding schools for the elite, where qualifications seemed secondary to the campus life and connections made therein) but with a tinge of regret for actual human feeling towards the 'pure joy of learning' that likely was never entirely the main motivator in the first place.
I particularly like the Frankenstein referencing ending (Frank himself self-aggrandisingly refers to Rita as his creation in a slightly earlier scene) as Frank has banished himself to the wilderness (aka Australia) by his transgressive behaviour beyond the limits of what academia will put up with but has a final parting of the ways with his newly self-actualised 'creation' at the airport before it walks off to (at least try to) inhabit the new world that it has been unleashed into. And who is to say that it will not be successful in that task, for all the trials it has been through already? But is that a good or a bad thing, or even a thing worthy of note at all in the larger scheme of things?
(And I did find it darkly comic that Frank's poetry is apparently so good/so bad that it seems that it is the last straw in causing the superficially carefree seeming Flapper-girl character played by Maureen Lipman to attempt suicide! (Sort of underlining the point of the film that it is not the art but what you do with it that matters! The slightly disturbing implication here being that you do not actually engage with a piece of art so much that you yourself get changed by it, but instead only ever use it for the practical purposes of sitting that exam paper!) The romantically morbid Mahler provided the impetus, but apparently a terrible poet can have just as big an effect on finally putting those plans into motion! Sometimes art can just be that dangerous, full of eye-opening despair at the state of the world with no easy answers proferred!)
So I'm rather torn on this film but I ended up liking it quite a bit. Much more than Billy Elliot (which does however make a good companion to this film, particularly as it lets Julie Walters transition from the naive student to the jaded and faded teacher role herself), because it does not neatly provide all the concrete answers to the character's situation, and even provides that sense of ambivalence towards the quest having been worthwhile or not in the end anyway, or whether Susan (née Rita) has just moved into a slightly larger bubble rather than popping it completely.