Skip to content

There Must Be Better Songs to Sing

May 1, 2010

The radiant Julie Waters as Rita

There’s a scene half way through Educating Rita where Rita – played with gusto by the incandescent Julie Waters – details her evening spent with family and friends rather than going to a dinner party at the invitation of her tutor Dr. Frank Bryant – Michael Caine in his absolutely best role. Rita, a hairdresser by trade, is having a difficult time navigating the expectations of being working class woman. Rita’s world is tossed about by the academic stirrings within her and the conflicts brought on by those longings. Anyway, she tells Frank about sitting in a pub that used to feel like “home” and feeling very much like an outsider. Everyone around her is singing some old timey “ain’t we got fun” kind of song and she doesn’t want to know the words anymore. Rita glances over at her mother, notices she’s crying as asks her why. Her mother says, “There must be better songs to sing than this.” which becomes Rita’s mission statement.

Everyone has sung the song of other people’s expectations at least once in their lives and Rita’s heartbreak in this and many other scenes is palpable. I’m telling you, Walters BAFTA winning performance shuts this whole thing down. Much is made of Caine, who is in fact as good as you might have heard, but this is Walters’s moment. She’s in that cohort of tremendous British talents such as Eileen Atkins and Helen Mirren (she co-starred with Mirren in the overlooked delight Calendar Girls). She also wowed us in Billy Elliot. This performances alone make this film a treat, but the story will have you talking about sexual agency, class and access to education long after that Fisher-Price keyboard – apparently used for the soundtrack – plays its last tinny note.

Rita is looking for a new song to sing and it is this exploration and not Pygmalion framing of the story I find most transgressive. Rarely in film are the yearnings of working class women framed with so much honesty or complexity. Rita is often shown naive, but NEVER ignorant; a distinction absent from most depictions of working class women.

Michael Caine in a Boogie Down production.

If Educating Rita is a love story – and I believe it very much is – it’s the love story Samantha Jones would approve of. It is the kind where the woman says, “I might love you, but I love me MORE.” and act accordingly. This too is transgressive. While Pygmalion stories often deal with the creator falling in love with the creation, there almost no conversation regarding how the creation feels about the creator. Educating Rita tells that story.

Rita might adore Frank and might even love him – I believe she did – and she might be naive, but she’s nobody’s fool. She knows there is no need to be extracting yourself from the frying pan of one limiting relationship and jumping into the fire of another limiting relationship. Boozy, scruffy nerfherder boyfriends might work in outer space, but on planet earth they are the guys who can keep all your perishables cold with the chill of their emotional distance.

Frank and Rita

Roger Ebert, who didn’t seem to dig the film beyond Caine’s performance had this to say:

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say they both fall into love with the remake job they’d like to do on each other. Caine sees Walters as a fresh, honest, unspoiled intelligence. She sees him as a man who ought to sober up and return to his first love, writing poems. The idea of the curmudgeon and the Cockney was not new when Bernard Shaw wrote “Pygmalion,” and it is not any newer in “Educating Rita.” But it could have been entertaining, if only I’d believed they were reading those books.

And while I respect and to a certain extent agree with his analysis, I think he missed the point.

Firstly, the books were not the point. The setting was just – well – setting. Moreover, there’s something actually refreshing about depicting folks falling in love for the reasons folks often do fall in love: to fix something in themselves by fixing someone else. The fact we’re made uncomfortable by this realization only enhances the film rather than spoiling it. Rita comes from a world devoid of any sexual or emotional agency. She hides birth control pills in the floorboards and gets hounded by her father about her reproductive choices. Everywhere someone is trying to tell this woman what the fuck she should do with her body. Bryant is the only person suggesting things she ought to do with her mind.

Makeover trope subverted!

Throughout the film Rita adopts various personas in an attempt to fully inhabit her body with, mixed degrees of success. She also navigating the class conflicts of identifying as working class while being surrounded by folks – and to a certain degree even Frank – who either regard working class people seeking education as a curiosity or a bother.

And that dinner party Frank invited her to… Rita knew the score. When she called Frank out on his lack of class awareness with a stinging, “I’m nobody’s court jester.” I wanted to jump up and cheer. When do you see marginalized folks really taking the default setting folks to task in a way that forces them to own their privilege? I mean when do you see it on film and done so shockingly devoid of melodrama?

You don’t.

If you’re looking for a female focused film devoid of end credit weddings or Shirley Valentine (great film too) Pina Colada twist of fate endings, Educating Rita should be at the top of your queue. It’s got heart, cheek and wit for days. It has two powerhouse actors doing the best work of their careers, who have massive chemistry. It’s the kind of film they just don’t really make anymore.

Oh yeah, the pr0nny sounding title is in some ways a joke. Everyone’s getting an education in this film; it’s not just Rita.

About these ads
6 Comments leave one →
  1. May 1, 2010 7:05 am

    I also like how the film avoids the “happily ever after ending.” What neither her husband nor Frank seem to get about Susan/Rita is that her journey of discovery has no end in sight. Even though she clearly tells both of them something to that effect: they’re not listening, they only see the person they want her to be, and she’s having none of that.

  2. May 1, 2010 1:12 pm

    I’m just finished watching this, I really loved it.

    Rita comes off a little bit of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but she shuts Frank down when he tries to put her in this role. I like the scene where he wanted her to come to his dinner party to be funny and charming and she tells him she’s not interested in being an amusing outsider trying to fit in. She’s less interested in his ideal of her than she is in discovering who she really is, you don’t see much of that in movies anymore.

    Shaw’s Pygmalion is one of my favorite plays. It’s nice to see a take on the theme that does justice to the criticisms of class and culture that Shaw was attempting to convey. Especially a take that doesn’t rely on a romantic conclusion to the story, you have no idea how relieved I was that they didn’t kiss at the end, though the scene intimated that it was a possibility they both avoided.

  3. May 1, 2010 1:43 pm

    Especially a take that doesn’t rely on a romantic conclusion to the story, you have no idea how relieved I was that they didn’t kiss at the end, though the scene intimated that it was a possibility they both avoided.

    Seriously. I definitely would love to see a Frank/Rita romance, but that’s cultural instruction doing my thinking for me. It really does challenge film goers to ask they entertain the real world application of love devoid of hollywood style romantic tropes.

    I agree with your assessment of Rita, re: Manic Pixie Dream Girl and I find its use surprisingly effective. Normally, this sort of framing tends to make dislike a film, but here it was delightful.

    I just adore the character and the depth of self awareness she possesses and how it’s framed as an aspect of her intelligence and not something given to her by her “creator”.

    Rita was already the Rita at the end of the film when she met Bryant. It just took her a while find her way there. That’s why her passing the exam with distinction only surprised Frank; not her.

  4. May 1, 2010 2:16 pm

    I put this in my Instant Queue. Maybe I’ll watch a good movie for a change, that’ll throw me for a loop.

  5. burbly permalink
    May 1, 2010 5:56 pm

    Makeover trope subverted!

    LOL then sadness when it strikes me that the makeover trope in movies mirrors–as in reverse reflects–the trope that women are the ones who always want to change men.

    Another non-happily after ending movie though it happens to end happily I loved is Broadcast News. Albert Brooks is a great Nice Guy(TM), and I loved that Holly Hunter’s character followed her attraction to William Hurt’s Character and then her ethics in rejecting him. I also loved that she didn’t wind up with the Nice Guy like she was only limited to men in the movie universe. Movies are not a dating desert island! Geez. …Or in Snarkys words, “She knows there is no need to be extracting yourself from the frying pan of one limiting relationship and jumping into the fire of another limiting relationship. Boozy, scruffy nerfherder boyfriends might work in outer space, but on planet earth they are the guys who can keep all your perishables cold with the chill of their emotional distance. ” Hmm, I knew that movie reminded me of something.

    Also, so much love for Billy Elliot.

  6. May 1, 2010 5:58 pm

    Another non-happily after ending movie though it happens to end happily I loved is Broadcast News.

    Very great observation, burbly. It’s an excellent parallel to Educating Rita. I kind of want to watch Broadcast News again to see how well they walk in step.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 92 other followers

%d bloggers like this: