A Liverpudlian working-class young woman – hairdresser – Rita (Julie Walters) wants to better herself by studying literature. Her assigned Open University professor, Frank Bryant (Michael Caine), however, has long ago openly taken to the bottle, and soon develops misgivings about Rita's ability to adapt to student culture. Bryant is a jaded university lecturer, who describes his occupational ability as "appalling but good enough for his appalling students". His passion for literature is reignited by Rita, whose technical ability for the subject is limited by her lack of education but whose enthusiasm Frank finds refreshing.
The film focuses on Rita's unhappiness with her life in her blue-collar, working-class environment, including her husband who wants Rita to cease her educational pursuits and instead to have children. Rita struggles to fit into a new educated middle-class existence in academia, while seeking a "better song to sing". Rita's original preconceptions that the educated classes have better lives and are happier people are brought into question throughout the film through Frank's failing social life and alcoholism and her flatmate Trish's attempted suicide. Rita, her search, and her search's meaning for her, all evolve as she adapts to academia and grows as a person.
Lewis Gilbert says it was difficult to raise finance for the film. "Columbia wanted me to cast Dolly Parton as Rita". Julie Walters, in her feature film debut, reprised her role from the stage production.
The film was shot in Dublin. Trinity College, Dublin, is used as the setting for the university, and University College Dublin, in Belfield, Dublin, is used for Rita's summer school. The rooms used by Bryant as his office and tutorial room were those of the College Historical Society and the University Philosophical Society, respectively; and while the building was considerably refurnished, the production chose to leave portraits of Douglas Hyde and Isaac Butt and committee photographs in the former, and a bust of John Pentland Mahaffy in the latter. No. 8 Hogan Avenue in Dublin 2 near Grand Canal Dock was used for Rita's house in the film, and one in Burlington Road, Ballsbridge for Bryant's. The scene where Rita runs into her ex Denny and his new wife was filmed in the South Lotts area of Ringsend. The scene in France was filmed in Maynooth, County Kildare, and Pearse Station and Dublin Airport were also used. The scene in the pub was shot in The Stag's Head pub on Dame Court in Dublin. However, the pub which Rita enters is the Dame Tavern which is opposite The Stag's Head. Filming also took place in Stonybatter with Aughrim St Church being used for the wedding scene. Stanhope St school was used as a production base.
The American Variety magazine in December 1982 lauded Walters' interpretation of Rita as "[w]itty, down-to-earth, kind and loaded with common sense." "Rita," the review continues, "is the antithesis of the humorless, stuffy and stagnated academic world she so longs to infiltrate. Julie Walters injects her with just the right mix of comedy and pathos."
Ian Nathan reviewing the film for Britain's Empire film magazine calls the film a "gem," and gives it four out of five stars. He describes Walters's "splendidly rich interpretation" of Rita and characterises her "reactions to the traditions of English lit[erature] [as] carry[ing] the caustic brilliance of true intelligence, a shattering of blithe pretension". Of Walters and Caine, Nathan opines, "they make a beautifully odd couple, in a love story at one remove". This reviewer depicts the director's effort as "effective, and finally optimistic," and observes about the film that the playwright's "angry message that people are trapped by their environment not their abilities, is salved by the sweetness of [Frank's and Rita's] final parting." Nathan's "verdict" of the film is one of "[c]harming, glittering characterisations that, though they don't run deep, nevertheless refresh."
American critic Janet Maslin called the film "an awkward blend of intellectual pretension and cute obvious humour" and "the perfect play about literature for anyone who wouldn't dream of actually reading books"; she wrote that "the essentially two-character play has been opened up to the point that it includes a variety of settings and subordinate figures, but it never approaches anything lifelike".
Chicago film critic Roger Ebert gave the film two stars out of four, calling the film a "forced march through a formula relationship"; he said Russell's screen adaptation "added mistresses, colleagues, husbands, in-laws, students and a faculty committee, [that were] all unnecessary" and said the playwright/screenwriter "start[ed] with an idealistic, challenging idea, and then cynically tr[ied] to broaden its appeal".Academy Award for Best Actor (Michael Caine) - Nominated
Academy Award for Best Actress (Julie Walters) - Nominated
Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay (Willy Russell) - Nominated
Golden Globe Award for Best English-Language Foreign Film - Nominated
Golden Globe Award for Best Actor - Motion Picture Musical or Comedy (Michael Caine) - Won
Golden Globe Award for Best Actress - Motion Picture Musical or Comedy (Julie Walters) - Won
Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay (Willy Russell) - Nominated
BAFTA Award for Best Film - Won
BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Michael Caine) - Won
BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Julie Walters) - Won
BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Maureen Lipman) - Nominated
BAFTA Award for Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles (Julie Walters) - Nominated
BAFTA Award for Best Adapted Screenplay (Willy Russell)
National Board of Review: Top Ten Films - Won
In 1999, the film was among the BFI Top 100 British films.
In 2007, while promoting the remake of Sleuth, Caine called Educating Rita "the last good picture [he] made before [he] mentally retired."
To illustrate the rhyming principle of assonance, the repetition of vowel sounds, Dr. Bryant gives as an example the words 'swans' and 'stones' from W B Yeats's The Wild Swans at Coole. This is instead an example of consonance, the repetition of consonant sounds. However, in a scene just before Rita meets Dr. Bryant, some students mockingly observe, "He doesn't even know what assonance means!", confirming that it is Dr. Bryant's mistake, not the film's. In an ensuing discussion between Dr. Bryant and Rita, he asks her whether she understands assonance. Rita replies, "Yeah, it means you've got the rhyme wrong."
In November 2002, the then-82-year-old director Lewis Gilbert went public with plans to remake his film "with a black cast that could include Halle Berry and Denzel Washington", with principal photography to commence in 2003. The project, however, never got off the ground.