Is Educating Rita* an optimistic film? Andy Beckett, in this weekend’s FT, argues that the British cinema of the early eighties was a cinema of optimism, in contrast with the pessimism of the films of the seventies.** Citing Educating Rita as an example of the cinema of optimism, Beckett describes Rita and Frank as “a frustrated hairdresser and an embittered alcoholic professor [who] better themselves and each other”. Putting aside the problematic argument that a film can be defined by how uplifting it is, I want to take issue with the idea that Educating Rita is optimistic at all.
One of Frank’s problems is that, for an academic teacher of English literature, he holds his subject in peculiarly low regard. Flourishing teachers impart a subject they love. Frank rips up his own book of poems in front of Rita saying they are “pretentious, characterless and without style”. Poems, instead of being literary, should pulsate with life; for him literature and life are antithetical. He tells Rita “it’s the sort of poetry you can’t understand, unless you happen to have a detailed knowledge of the literary references”. Frank is trapped, he is a poet forced to teach a subject that makes impossible his own poetry. For him literature is the problem
Where Frank undervalues literature, Rita overvalues it. For her the study of literature is a way to improve her life. Rita is on a mission with a thirst for learning and an instinctive awareness that literature will change her humdrum life for the better. For her literature offers the hope of providing meaning to her life “if you want to change y’ have to do it from the inside, don’t y’”. She is seeking, through a liberal education, a better understanding of herself. “See I don’t want a baby yet. See I wanna discover myself first. Do you understand that?” For her literature is the solution.
The film raises a glimmer of hope that each offers a way out of the other’s impasse. Frank has already travelled down his path of self discovery, and did not like the self he discovered, “it’s myself I’m not too fond of”, and is drinking heavily. Rita is a funny, vibrant and effervescent woman. Frank tells Rita: “I think you’re marvellous. Do you know, I think you’re the first breath of air that’s been in this room for years.” He tells her that having sex with her in the middle of The Seagull would make theatre more exciting for him again. Isn’t she just the tonic he needs? Pulsating with the life his poems lack? However the only progress Frank makes is downhill. By the end of the film he has been dismissed from his post, is on his way out of the country, still an alcoholic. The only gain he makes is a haircut.
What of Rita’s progress? Frank immediately understands from the beginning the impossibility of educating Rita. He realises that whilst he is able to teach her the literature course it would rob her of her comedy, her irreverence, her life force. “But if you’re going to write this sort of stuff you’re going to have to change….I don’t know if I want to teach you. What you already have is valuable…What can I teach you?”. He thinks her spontaneity will be smothered by the way she is required to write about the set texts. At the start he says: “I’ll make a bargain with you. Yes? I’ll tell you everything I know – but if I do that you must promise never to come back here…Everything I know – and you must listen to this – is that I know absolutely nothing”. She keeps returning.
In the key scene in the film, when she is well on her way to gaining a good education in literary criticism, Rita describes Frank’s poems as brilliant, witty, profound and full of style. Given he knows they are merely a “clever, pyrotechnical pile of self-conscious allusion” her praise simply confirms that her transformation has been for the worse. The education of Rita has made her pretentious and false. At one point Rita asks Frank why Chekhov is regarded as a comic writer when the content of his plays are so depressing. Willy Russell is a comic writer in the same manner as Chekhov: he finds the comedy of life lurking in very dark places. This is far from the cinema of optimism.
(1983) Lewis Gilbert dir.
** He has this week published a new book Promised You a Miracle (Allen Lane). I have not read it yet, but see from reviews that the book contains a thesis that the early eighties was a period of national renewal.