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Educating Rita

Most people wish they were smarter. Others just want to "class up." When Cambridge professor Frank Bryant (Michael Caine) first meets Rita (Julie Walters), she's somewhere in between the two. Enduring a life of quiet desperation as a 26-year-old hairdresser with a small-minded husband, she's aware that she has no opportunities, feels constant pressure from her family to get pregnant, and humors the women who visit her salon in the hopes of emulating a beauty and status that they will never attain. But Rita also knows that she's brighter and more curious than those around her, although she can't explain exactly why — which leads her to Frank, who's assigned to her as a tutor in Cambridge's Open University program. They make an ironic pair: Rita's filled with a passion for literature, but her platitudes are prosaic at best; Frank's a respected professor who hates dead poets, students, his job, and his domestic life. Aware that Rita deserves more than a burned-out drunk for a mentor, he offers to reassign her. But she takes shelter in his weariness, which doesn't prod her insecurities and, eventually, allows her natural intelligence to blossom. Adapted by Willy Russell from his own stage-play, Lewis Gilbert's Educating Rita (1983) reunited the director with his Alfie (1966) star, and as is typical for most theatrical adaptations, it's an actors' showcase. Although in this case, the veteran Caine is upstaged by Julie Walters, who earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in her film debut (Caine also was nominated). Walters has since enjoyed a long career on film — including a recurring part in the Harry Potter series as Molly Weasley — but she always will be associated with Rita, which she originally played on the stage. Over the course of a few years, Jack Bryant falls in love with Rita, and we are meant to as well — Russell's script deftly assays her transformation from tarted-up hairdresser to apple-cheeked college student, which Walters portrays not only with changing hairstyles, but a convincing confidence. She is every bit Caine's equal, and while he can be accused of making his share of bad movies to pay the rent (he once stated he'd never seen Jaws: The Revenge, but that he had seen the house it built), Rita is one of his few creditable turns in the '80s, not marking time as much as marking Caine's own transformation from the laddish Alfie to his more mature persona. At 50, he plays Frank as a believable drunk, but also an appropriately pathetic, self-pitying one — pissed to the gills on the Cambridge lawns in the middle of the night, he thinks he's having a grand time, but there's nothing all that funny about it. Only his Oscar-winning turn in Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) was better during this stretch, and then only marginally so. Sony's DVD release of Educating Rita features a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) from an acceptable source-print that shows little collateral wear and only some color desaturation. The original audio is heard on a monaural Dolby Digital 2.0 track, which capably handles the dialogue but makes the limited amount of scoring (some of which being unpleasant '80s synths) sound thin. Trailers, keep-case.

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