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“The brain was not born
To be wasted and worn,”
Said the student with scorn,
“In service of humbler bodily parts.
Instead, it should yearn
For the prospect to learn,
For there can be no higher cause than the arts.”

The worker meanwhile
Said, “Art has its style,
But brains are worthwhile
When used in more practical, down-to-earth ways.
The comfort of chums
Can raise even the slums
To far greater value than poets can phrase.”

Between the two sides,
Each content in their prides,
A woman decides
If worth is found in what one does or one knows.
Whatever her choice,
‘Tis a cause to rejoice,
For not all possess such dilemmas to pose.

MPAA rating: PG (definitely PG-13 these days, for language)

I’m currently working through college and have had a quality education throughout my life; in fact, it’s been such a constant presence that I know I’ve taken the textbooks and tests for granted, in sharp contrast to so many who haven’t had the opportunity of an education. Does the quality of one’s life depend on the quality of one’s schooling or how many 18th-century poets one can quote? Such is the kind of question asked in Educating Rita, an outstanding based-on-a-play character piece for Michael Caine and Julie Walters, both of whom were worthily nominated for Oscars.

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Walters plays Susan, or Rita as she prefers, a plain-spoken, rather coarse hairdresser whose main dream is to expand her limited working-class knowledge through an Open University program and regular appointments with her alcoholic literature professor Frank Bryant (Caine). Disillusioned as he is with the pretensions of his academic habitat, Bryant is charmed by Rita’s enthusiasm and candidness. While Rita’s husband (Malcolm Douglas) sees little value in his wife’s scholarly pursuits and even actively opposes them when they interfere with his plans, Rita is determined to widen her narrow experience, even if her husband and Bryant himself don’t approve of how it may change her.

I loved how Educating Rita depicted different views of academia, specifically between Rita, who sees learning as a holy grail to lift her from her pedestrian life, and Bryant, who’s been so overexposed to the snobbish airs of the college system that his only escape is the bottle. Frank certainly understands the value of education and poetry, but he has no passion for it anymore, in contrast to his fresh-faced ingénue who gets excited over Macbeth and can answer essay questions with disarming simplicity.

At the same time, it’s an essential point that Rita sees firsthand the intellectual emptiness which isn’t limited to just Bryant, the result of placing artistic culture on such a pedestal that everyday life no longer seems to compare. It’s a stark reminder that artists and art lovers alike can revel in the heights of creativity and success and still find little reason for living (such as Sylvia Plath, Robin Williams, and many others). Interestingly, religion and faith never come up as a significant topic or supplement to scholarship, which I consider a sad reflection on the limitations of humanism.

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While I very much enjoyed the often humorous interactions between Caine and Walters and the debate about the prominence of erudition in one’s life (and, of course, any film with poetry as a major element has my interest), I found the ending a bit wanting, content to affirm Rita’s choices with a satisfying but not quite happy conclusion. I’ve come to appreciate it more with thought, though, since its slight ambiguity upholds the real reason why Rita sought out her studies: not necessarily to change who she was but to educate her enough to allow her a greater choice in life, whether as a hairdresser or a scholar. In the midst of stressful research papers and half-confident tests, it’s easy to forget that the true meaning of education is that very ability to choose, to lift one’s experience high enough to see all the available options and pursue what we will. Happiness isn’t limited to the highbrow elite or the practical proletarian, but it’s perhaps clearer to find for one like Rita who can appreciate both.

Best line: (Denny, Rita’s husband) “In my family, a man has only to look at a woman, and she’s pregnant.”   (Rita) “That’s because you’re all so cockeyed.”


Rank: List Runner-Up (very close to List-Worthy)


© 2017 S.G. Liput
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