Rita White, a young Liverpool hairdresser, enrols on an Open University course to study literature. (This is a scheme in Britain whereby adults can study for a degree at home). In Willie Russell's original stage play, there were only two characters, Rita and her tutor Frank Bryant. The screenplay (also written by Russell) opens up the action to bring in other characters, but Rita and Frank are still very much at the centre.
They are very different. She is intelligent with a sharp wit, but with little formal schooling, whereas he is a highly qualified middle-class academic. She has not enrolled in higher education in her mid-twenties to earn more money or to get a better job, but rather because she believes in education for its own sake. She wants to study literature as a means of self-realisation and as a way of getting a wider perspective on the world. As she puts it, she "wants to sing a better song". In doing so, however, she comes into conflict with her working-class family, who have no sympathy with her intellectual aspirations, and her cheerfully Philistine husband Denny, whose only desire is to start raising a family.
The irony of the film is that Frank possesses what Rita most earnestly desires- learning and culture- but does not appreciate it. In his youth, when he was a published poet, he doubtless shared her ideals, but now in middle age he is a bored, cynical alcoholic. He gave up writing poetry after the breakdown of his marriage and his relationship with his girlfriend Julia is also collapsing. (She is having an affair with one of his colleagues). He turns up drunk to lectures and mocks his students and the university authorities. Although he still earns a living from teaching literature, he has lost his enthusiasm for the subject.
Despite their differences, Rita and Frank become friends, probably because he retains just enough idealism to be touched by her naive enthusiasm. This comes across in the scene where she rushes to tell him of her excitement at seeing a production of "Macbeth" or the one where he introduces her to Blake. Initially Rita has more enthusiasm for the subject than understanding, but she makes good progress, and is eventually able to discuss literature on equal terms with Frank's college students. She becomes a waitress, which gives her more time to study. Her appearance changes; originally a bleached blonde in mini-skirt and high heels she returns to her natural brunette looks and dresses more conservatively. She reverts to her real name, Susan, abandoning "Rita" which she adopted in honour of the writer Rita Mae Brown.
Frank, however, is not happy with the change in her personality. He has become disillusioned with the idea that culture is desirable, and dislikes the way in which the naive but spontaneous and amusing Rita has given way to the more analytical, intellectually aware Susan, whom he sees as pretentious. (He insists on calling her "Rita" even after she has ceased using the name). He accuses himself of being a Frankenstein who has created a monster, and her of singing not a better song, merely a different one which on her lips sounds shrill, hollow and tuneless. This, of course, causes difficulties between them. Susan's success has been achieved at considerable personal cost because her marriage to Denny has collapsed- he burnt her course-books in a fit of rage after discovering that she was taking the Pill in order to delay having children- and she has become estranged from her family, who sided with Denny over the divorce.
If this had been a Hollywood production, it would doubtless have been made as a traditional rom-com, with a happy ending as Frank and Susan fall in love. What we actually have is a film of ideas, with a much more ambiguous ending. The central question is "What is the value of culture and education?" Should one value these things, or question their value as Frank does? Although some reviewers have sympathised with Frank, my sympathies are with Susan; his belittling of her aspirations seems patronising, and there is some justice in her accusations that he liked her better in the early days of their relationship because he was amused by her ignorance and naivety. His apparent disillusionment with his own achievements may reflect not humility but rather a deeper arrogance- the arrogance of the man who mistakes his own cynical nihilism for a higher wisdom.
If that analysis of the film makes it seem very serious, it is not- it is often very funny with some wonderful lines delivered in two great performances by Julie Waters and Michael Caine. (There is also a brilliant, and very memorable, synthesiser score from David Hentschel).
I did not like the sub-plot involving Susan's flatmate Trish, a suicidally depressed culture-vulture, played by Maureen Lipman as an exaggerated caricature. ("Wouldn't you just die without Maaahler?") I also felt an opportunity was lost by filming in Dublin rather than Liverpool. Doubtless the Irish authorities offered a better financial deal, but it meant that the film lacks the authentic sense of place which marks so many of the best British films.
Those reservations apart, however, I loved the film. Its combination of wit, great dialogue, warmth and intellectual depth made it, in my view, easily the best film of 1983. Unfortunately, its chances of winning an Oscar were sabotaged by the fact that the British film industry was going through a brief but brilliant revival in the early eighties and British films- "Chariots of Fire" and "Gandhi"- had achieved the unprecedented feat of winning "Best Picture" in two successive years. A British hat-trick would have been a hurt to American national pride too serious to bear, so "Best Picture" went instead to that horrible tear-jerker "Terms of Endearment". 9/10