The Getting of Wisdom
By Alicia Freidenreich
Australian Cinema MED231

Year of Production: shooting February-March 1977
Premiere: August 1977 in Ascot, Sydney
Australia 100 min
AMG Rating 2 and a half stars
PG Rating
Genre/Type: Drama, Period Film, Coming of Age
Time Period: Victorian Era, 19th Century
Cinematic Production Panavision
Produced by Roadshow Distributors / Southern Cross Productions

Susannah Fowle…Laura Tweedle-Rambotham
Barry Humphries…Reverend Strachey
John Waters---Reverend Shepherd
Sheila Helpmann…Mrs. Gurley
Patricia Kennedy…Miss Chapman
Julia Blake…Isabella Shepherd
Jan Friedl…Miss Snodgrass
Kim Deacon…Lilith
Hilary Ryan…Evelyn
Terence Donovan…Tom Macnamara
Corothy Bradley…Miss Hicks
Kay Eklund…Mrs. Tweedle-Rambotham

Bruce Beresford…Director
Phillip Adams…Producer
Moya Iceton…Screenwriter (continuous)
Henry Handel Richardson…Book Author
Eleanor Witcombe…Screenwriter
Donald M. McAlpine…Cinematographer

Australia 17 August 1978
Canada 20 September 1978 (Toronto Film Festival)
Finland 21 December 1979

According to the Movie Marshall website attached to the MED231 Murdoch University website, The Getting of Wisdom grossed $AUD 982,000 ranked 156 out of 438.
The film was produced on a budget of between $AUD 520,000-575,000.
50-minute audio interview with Bruce Beresford, Phillip Adams, Barry Humphries, and Susannah Fowle called 1978 RADIO Interview.

A 50-minute audio interview with Bruce Beresford, Phillip Adams, Barry Humphries, and Susannah Fowle called 1978 RADIO Interview. (The interview is not actually on this website but the details of how to obtain the interview is here. I was unable to obtain a copy).

Bruce Beresford did an interview about his past films, influence, and the new genre and style he influenced at the Vancouver International Film Festival’s Film and Television Trade Forum. He talked to Reel West about his part in the Australian film renaissance and his past films in general.

Peter Coleman 1992, ‘Bruce Beresford: Instincts of the Heart’, Part IV: Women Without Men, Angus and Robertson, Australia: 105-111.
This book is mainly a review of the film, but here is a humorous quote from Bruce Beresford on the film: “We’ll just have to think of another title. I doubt if anyone in the world would go and see a film called The Getting of Wisdom. It sounds so boring.”
Throughout the other few pages in the novel, Beresford comments on his longtime desire and struggle to make the movie as well as his satisfaction when the film is launched.

David Stratton 1980, ‘The Last New Wave: The Australian Film Revival’, Chapter 4 of Lucky Man, Angus and Robertson Publishers, Australia: 51.
Here is a short excerpt from a longer interview that the producer, Phillip Adams, gives. He mentions his disagreement in how the ending of the film, Laura running out of the school, should have been shot as well as the relationship between Laura and Evelyn; he felt Beresford downplayed the sexual scenes.


Online Websites and Databases:

Rotten Tomatoes Film Website
This site features three reviews: Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat from Spirituality and Practice, Stephen Groenewegen from, and one short review by Channel 4 Film Australian Cinema by Joshua Smith
Focuses on Bruce Beresford’s instrumental part supporting Australian Cinema through its New Wave Period and the impact of The Getting of Wisdom.

Senses of Cinema Screening History by Fincina Hopgood
A speech given at the 12th Biennial Conference of the Film and History Association of Australia and New Zealand, Canberra Australia December 2-5 2004. The Getting of Wisdom was screened at the closing of this conference with words in reference to Eleanor Witcombe’s take on the film as screenwriter.

Film Index International, database, link from the Murdoch University Library Page.  
Features more references to reviews on The Getting of Wisdom. Examples of reviews are included from Screen International and Time Out; these reviews for the most part date back to 1979.


*** Brian Reis 1997, ‘Australian Film: A Bibliography’, Mansell Publishing Limited, London: 406-407.
This book gives 35 references to other critiques and reviews by film reviewers and authors on The Getting of Wisdom. Reviews from Cinema Papers, Bulletin, Hollywood Reporter, Quadrant, Films, Illustrated, Films and Filming, Cinema, Metro, Monthly Film Bulletin, Positif just to name a few; these all date back to reviews from 1977-1979 for the most part, although some reviews are from 1983-1987 (can be found in the Murdoch Library 791.43016 REI 1997).

Sanda Hall 1985, ‘Critical Business: The New Australian Cinema in Review’, Chapter of Growing Up, Rigby Publishers, Australia: 27-29.

David Stratton 1980, ‘The Last New Wave: The Australian Film Revival’, Chapter 4 of Lucky Man, Angus and Robertson Publishers, Australia: 49-52.
Pages 41-49 include biographical information about Bruce Beresford’s background as well as other feature films he directed.

Brian McFarlane and Geoff Mayer 1992, ‘New Australian Cinema: Sources and Parallels in American and British Film’, various chapters, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK: 57, 140, 150, 183, 187-8, 189

Brian McFarlane 1983, ‘Words and Images: Australian Novels Into Films’, Chapter 4: The Getting of Wisdom, Heinemann Publishers, Australia: 57-69.

Brian MacFarlane 1987, ‘Australian Cinema 1970-1985’, various chapters, William Heinemann Australia, Australia: 25, 41, 44, 134-5, 140, 154, 166, 170, 182

Peter Coleman 1992, ‘Bruce Beresford: Instincts of the Heart’, Part IV: Women Without Men, Angus and Robertson, Australia: 105-111.
There is a small portion of the book strictly devoted to discussing The Getting of Wisdom, but the book focuses on the whole of Beresford’s accomplishments, goals, and influences on American and Australian Cinema.

Edited by Albert Moran and Tom O’Regan 1985, Robin Wood, ‘An Australian Film Reader’, Part III: Renaissance of the Feature ‘Quo Vadis Bruce Beresford’, Currency Press, Sydney: 198-203.

Edited by Nicholas Thomas 1991, ‘International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers: Directors 2nd Edition’, Beresford, Bruce, St. James Press, London: 59.

Edited by John Wakeman 1988, ‘World Film Directors Vol. 2 1945-1985’, Bruce Beresford, The H.W. Wilson Company, New York: 100-103.

Brian McFarlane 1999, The Oxford Companion to Australian Film’, Getting of Wisdom, The, Oxford University Press, Melbourne: 182-183.


Pym, John (1979-1981). ‘The Getting of Wisdom.’ Monthly Film Bulletin, V. 46, No. 544, May 1979, p. 95-96.

McFarlane, Brian. ‘The Getting of Wisdom.’ Cinema Papers, No. 14, October 1977, p. 175

Elley, Derek. ‘The Getting of Wisdom.’ Films and Filming, V. 24, No. 9, June 1979, p. 30-31

               Since The Getting of Wisdom is an older film, most of the movie websites I found only had a plot synopsis and cast and crew list. Rarely did I find a review online and if I did, the review was short and concise. I came across through the Murdoch University website under Subject Guides, the topic ‘Media Studies, Communication Studies, Mass Studies Internet Resources’ which had a number of movie search engines, but most of these had little information for The Getting of Wisdom and were therefore, of very little use to me. Most of my information, including reviews, critical uptake, and the director’s subsequent work information came from take home books, bibliographical books, and journals (from the reference section) of the Murdoch University Library. A favorite was a bibliographical book compiled by Brian Reis which led me to many sources including past newspaper articles, journals, and other books.

               The Getting of Wisdom is based on the 1910 novel by Henry Handel Richardson (born Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson). Her novel is thought to be an account of her own schooldays at the Presbyterian Ladies College in Melbourne. “Making good use of the city’s rich heritage of elegant nineteenth century architecture, the film recreates stuffy Victorian Melbourne” (World Film Directors 101). The film is about a young girl, Laura Tweedle-Rambotham who grew up in the outback, and at around the age of 14, is sent off by her poor mother who has scrimped and saved for her to go to a prestigious women’s private college in Melbourne, the Presbyterian Ladies College. “The film is a period piece but provides a devastating look at the overly genteel pretensions of the class-bound, nineteenth-century Australian society. Not yet secure in its own identity this society still copied the Victorian social arrangements of the motherland” (International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers: Directors 59).
               As the outcast of the school, the aim of Laura’s instruction is to instill in her a respect for a set learning style, for strict adherence to the arrogant ways of behavior set by the teachers and students, and for preparing for the ultimate goal of marriage. However, Laura seems to be the rebellious ugly duckling who does not fit in.  She immediately sticks out wearing her bright handmade red dress and red hat with her uncombed hair and pale skin whereas her fellow classmates are neatly primed with finely combed hair and, brighter complexions, and a simple uniform. Laura is an intelligent, individualistic, peculiar girl who comes to college with an open mind and an enthusiasm to learn and make new friends, but she soon learns that the girls she meets do not want to have anything to do with her. They make fun of her, but Laura nevertheless wants to pursue a friendship with these snobby, rich girls. Although, she does threaten back and stand up for herself when prompted.
               At a tea party given by the headmaster, Reverend Strachey, the teachers and the girls see Laura’s extraordinary talent for playing the piano because she plays with such grace and confidence, but instead of getting the praise and applause she deserves, she’s scorned by the other students and the teacher for showing off and not playing what she is asked to play. She is singularly gifted, but the teachers are punishing her instead for not conforming like the rest of the girls. As time goes on, she begins to act like the other girls in order to fit in and wears the clothes that they wear. Even though she is relentlessly made fun of for being an outsider, when she goes home, she tells her family of all the wonderful friends she’s made and how much she loves it. Her mother sews her another dress, which she was proud to wear when she arrived at school, but now she’s ashamed and embarrassed to be seen with it. She’s beginning to change in order to fit in. Appearance seems to play an important role as well as self image.
               The girls think that the young minister, Reverend Shepherd, is very handsome and when Laura gets invited to the minister’s house, the other girls are very jealous. Even though Laura realizes that in this case, appearances can be deceiving because the minister is not practicing what he preaches; instead he’s rude and demanding, but nevertheless Laura tells everyone how remarkable he is and hints that they are having some sort of affair. In other words, she makes up stories in order to boost her self image and seem more important in the eyes of her classmates.
               A new girl by the name of Anna comes to the school, who like Laura, does not fit in, and she wants to become friends with Laura, but Laura seems uninterested in befriending a girl of such a low class, as herself. A hint of homosexuality is noted here. Anna wants to buy Laura a ring; she seems to be interested in more than just a friendship but is expelled for stealing money to buy the ring. The other girls find out that Laura has been lying about being in a relationship with the minister and Laura finds friendship with Evelyn. Laura swears off men and begins a relationship with Evelyn. There is a bit of eroticism for a late 1970’s film when for a couple of seconds, Evelyn walks across the screen naked and she and Laura get in the same bed together.
               In their second year, the film becomes darker and focuses on their relationship as it blossoms and as Laura’s schoolwork suffers. She is involved, obsessed with Evelyn, who tells her that she is leaving because she is feeling suffocated. Laura is angry and when Evelyn leaves, she stays to herself. Her exams roll around and because she did not have time to study properly, she cheats for the first time in her life but is not caught. When she graduates, she receives the prominent Woodfull Scholarship to study music at the fine institute in Leipzig, Germany as well as giving recognition for the school for her high achievement. The superintendent, Mrs. Gurley, who had been condescending and short with her in the past, all of a sudden speaks so highly of her.
              The film ends with her holding her award and running out of the school, away from the place she’d studied for the past two years, and she does not look back. She’s running away from all that she has learned the past two years; “When the heroine skips out of the school gates at the end, disappearing past a brass band into a leafy park, one appreciates-if not her character or ambitions-at least some measure of her relief at having
abandoned so stultifying an establishment” (Pym 96). Laura does not want to be a part of what she had spent a couple of years learning and she wants to do things her own way again: be an avid reader and read Shakespeare and play the piano theatrically the way she likes, have friends who care about her and not about her status. She realizes that she does not want to be a part of that world where appearances, materialism, and status are all that matters. For once in the last two years, their approval did not matter to her. In other words, the getting of such wisdom taught her that the ways in which she was taught before she went to boarding school, home schooled by her mother, is the way in which she wants to learn. This coming-of-age film is about convention, rules, regularity with a scarcely male influence. The film, unlike other Australian films, does not leave much to the imagination. Ironically, “the only way wisdom in which wisdom can be got is by resistance, by defining oneself in opposition to the system’s values and preserving the integrity it seeks to erode” (Wood 201).
               The cinematography in The Getting of Wisdom is used to enhance the claustrophobic aspects of the school’s life: lovingly photographed interiors of muted clutter, with sudden sharply contrasted bursts of harsh landscape, rolling coast-line, and formal gardens (McFarlane 175).

David Stratton describes the film as, “A fine film which deserves much more attention that it’s had (probably because of its lack of availability). –David Stratton
          The film was given much attention when it first premiered, reviews in newspapers, journals, and books came out between 1977-1983 from Australia, Britain, and America, but the once highly reviewed film seems to have lost its importance and commercialism (as reviews and information are hard to come by on the internet).                                        

“The film brings the manner sand mores of turn-of-the-century Melbourne vividly to life in a vitally important domain, that of education, and Beresford eloquently, economically makes the most of the fascinating material.” –David Stratton from The Last New Wave

The Getting of Wisdom established Beresford as a maker of serious and thoughtful films in the European art film industry.” –from the International Dictionary of Film and Filmmakers: Directors

               Most critics would agree that the actors all made a fine performance. In World Film Directors, Beresford is praised for his “sureness in handling the actors,” and there are excellent characterizations by Barry Humphries, who plays Reverend Strachey and the beautiful Hilary Ryan who plays Evelyn. Sandra Hall thought that the unknown who played Laura, Susannah Fowle, has perfected a style brilliantly mixed of bewilderment, calculation, and bursts of desperate action. In the film, all the teachers are merely caricatures who are overshadowed by the girls they teach which is exactly as Richardson intended.
               The main criticism of the film that most critics would agree upon is the fact that the film loses its coherence. In other words, the film is episodic as opposed to the scenes flowing together as a whole. In Richardson’s novel, Laura’s hard earned success is confirmed when she wins the Literary Society (a literature prize) which gives her the edge to becoming a famous author in the future. However, Beresford changes the scholarship she wins for obvious entertainment reasons, because her reciting an excerpt from what she has written is not nearly as exciting as her performing Evelyn’s Schubert Impromptu on the piano instead of Beethoven’s Sonata No.21 which she is expected to play. The drawback to this, in the critics’ eyes, is that this finale does not bring a fitting close to the film because what music means to Laura is never an integral part of the film. Literature, reciting Shakespeare, writing love poems, and reading is what makes Laura who she is. Her intelligence and quick wit comes from her studies. Episodes like Laura’s storytelling to her sister, her inventive lies, and the expulsion of Annie are left hanging without contributing to the growth of Laura as an artist.
              The theme which aroused the most debate was the lesbian one. According to the Oxford Companion, the film was at least more daring than Richardson could be for a book written in the early 1900’s. A striking remark from An Australian Film Reader: “The Getting of Wisdom remains, almost the only treatment of Lesbianism within commercial cinema that is entirely positive, sympathetic, and uncompromised. For once, lesbianism is treated as a perfectly valid and natural human experience requiring neither apology nor explanation.” –Robin Wood
               Another area where criticism arose was the cinematography. Derek Elley notes that even though there is some unsettling editing and unmatched cutting in two-shots, the performances, especially by the young Susannah Fowle, are strong enough to cover these faults. Brian McFarlane in Words and Images claims that in the Speech Day scene, the camera continues to pan several teachers and students but not on the music teacher, Mrs. Hicks whose reaction to Laura not playing the selected piece, would have supposed to be critical. On the other hand, Sandra Hall applauds McAlpine’s work as he immersed the interiors of the background in sea-green and amber. David Stratton praises Don McAlpine’s versatility as director of photography.
            Overall, when the film first came out, Australians were very critical of the film, looking at it as just another ‘nostalgic’ movie. The British were more tolerant in that they loved the honesty in dealing with the cruelty of the schoolgirls and gaining acceptance in a conforming society. Both appreciated the passion communicated by the actors. Now, the film is looked back upon as having a vast impact on Australian film and a turning point in creating a new genre, the New Wave as well as an inspirational Period film.

“The film was shot on location in Victoria on a budget of $520,000, it was the first film made through the new Victorian Film Corporation. Additional investment came from the Australian Film Commission and the Nine Television Network. The leading role was given to a Melbourne schoolgirl in her first professional role. The film opened at the Bryson Cinema in Melbourne on 17 August 1977. In May 1978 it was screened at the Directors' Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival.”
Phillip Adams raised the funds from both government and 25 private investors including the Packer television company. –According to Peter Coleman

A Few Key Films Directed By Bruce Beresford:
1972 The Adventures of Barry McKenzie
1974 Barry McKenzie Holds His own
1975 Don’s Party
1977 The Getting of Wisdom
1987 Money Movers
1980 Breaker Morant
1981 The Club
1982 Puberty Blues
1983 Tender Mercies
1985 King David; Fringe Dwellers
1986 Crimes of the Heart
1987 episode in Aria
1989 Driving Miss Daisy
1990 Her Alibi

Best Director, Australian Film Awards for Don’s Party 1976 and Breaker Morant 1980
Best Director, American Film Institute Awards for Don’s Party 1977
Best Screenplay Adapted, American Film Institute, Eleanor Witcombe 1978

“In commercial terms, [Bruce Beresford], has been one of the most successful Australian directors, and he is certainly an accomplished craftsman, superb with actors, and able to turn his hand to various styles of filmmaking from “ocker” comedy to wartime tragedy, from a sensitive story of a young girl to a violent thriller, to a courtroom drama.” –David Stratton from The Last New Wave

               The Adventures of Brian McKenzie is Beresford’s first film. The script was written by himself and Barry Humphries who had created McKenzie in a British comic strip. The main character “Bazza” McKenzie is a caricature of the Australian male-a beer-guzzling, sex crazed innocent bloke. The film was surprisingly blunt, vulgar to an extent , and gauche, and it created a raging stir with Australian critics, but the Australian audience loved it. This was the first Australian movie to receive any kind of international distribution for many years. He directed a couple years later Barry McKenzie Hold His Own which was considered to be slightly less awful than the original.
               Bruce Beresford directed Don’s Party about a candidate who ran for the Australian federal elections in 1969 under the Labor party. Soon to be realised that the Labor party would lose, the evening turned into a drunken night, coming to terms with failure, sex, and booze. “A group of caricature Aussies just real enough to be true” says Derek Malcolm. He won a few awards with this film and made another major advance with The Getting of Wisdom.
               Unwilling to be categorized as a director of “art” films, Beresford turned his attention to a very different type of film-The Money Movers is about an attempt to steal $20 million from a Melbourne security company with an apparent disappointing ending (also based on a novel though). The movie received little interest by critics and was a commercial failure. He has done films having to do with politics, comedy, drama, colonialism, and contemporary Australia. All of his films are unique but there is unity in his variety of films.

“Beresford’s debut rather belies his debut as the creator of raucous, echt-Australian
comedies. He now seems as much at home on the international scene as in his native
country, and his strongest suit may well be intense, small-scale drama; he has a gift for drawing extraordinary performances from his actors; he knows exactly what he wants.” –from World Film Directors

“For over 40 years Phillip Adams' columns in major newspapers and magazine have provoked discussion and outrage. He's been with The Australian since the early 1960s and his books including Adams Versus God, The Penguin Book of Australian Jokes, Retreat From Tolerance, Talkback and A Billion Voices have sold over a million copies.

Billed as the "godfather" of the Australian film industry, his features include The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, Don's Party, The Getting of Wisdom, Lonely Hearts and We of the Never Never. He has written and presented many TV series. He has worked with Bruce Beresford on a number of films and for many years.
He played a key role in the establishment of the Australia Council and has been Chairman of the Film Radio & Television Board, the Australian Film Commission, Film Australia, the Australian Film Institute, the Commission for the Future and the National Australia Day Council. He currently chairs the Advisory Board of the Centre for the Mind at the University of Sydney.”,20867,1860505-12273,00.html
Barry Humphries is a famous Australian comedian who has been in many films and has worked alongside Beresford many a times. He is not a favorite among the critics for his blunt and outright personality.
Eleanor Witcombe’s Achievements as a screenwriter:

  1. "The Harp in the South" (1987) (mini) TV Series
  2. "Jonah" (1982) (mini) TV Series (as Eleanor Whitcombe)
  3. Water Under the Bridge (1980) (TV)
  4. My Brilliant Career (1979)
  5. The Getting of Wisdom (1978)
  6. "Seven Little Australians" (1973) (mini) TV Series
  7. "Redheap" (1972) TV Series (writer)
  8. "Pastures of the Blue Crane" (1969) TV Series (writer)
  9. "Smugglers Beware" (1963) TV Series (writer)

Donald McAlpine has been the cinematographer for some 49 films, many Australian as well as American.

“While hardly attractive to film theorists, Stork and Alvin Purple served to introduce to local audience to local film. Now it was possible for Peter Weir to make Picnic at Hanging Rock; for Bruce Beresford to make The Getting of Wisdom; for Gill Armstrong to do My Brilliant Career. With work like this, filmmaking became respectable and Australian Audiences began to feel very cosy indeed. The acceptance of Australian films, meanwhile, at least coincided with and may have spear-headed a wider acceptance of Australian arts. Suddenly local theatre was booming and there was a new coincidence in out fiction writers.” –Editor Scott Murray from Australian Cinema

               The Getting of Wisdom is in the batch of films which explore aspects of the period in which Australia was said to have achieved nationhood (around the 1890’s). Movies produced around this time had their successes possibly because it was around the period that Australia was becoming distinctively Australian. These historical films, such as The Getting of Wisdom, offer a fictional representation into the period in which they are set.

“It was the decorative (and decorous), tasteful adaptations, from such popular and/or classic novels as Picnic at Hanging Rock, Storm Boy, The Getting of Wisdom, and My Brilliant Career, which largely accounted for the prevailing tone and prestige of Australian cinema in later 1970’s.” –Brian McFarlane from The New Australian Cinema

               In general, when The Getting of Wisdom was released in1977 film critics and the Australian audiences were interested in it because it portrayed a strong woman fighting the conventions of a conforming society; the film had wit, humor, and a touch of sexuality; the characters were diverse in personality and full of compassion and toughness. The film set the tone for others to follow and was thought by critics to be one of the best Australian films. It became well known because of the director, Beresford, was so famous. As time has passed, the film has received less notoriety, close to none.

“The Australian feminist films all follow the struggle of the heroines to overcome the stultifying pressures of family, school, and community. In The Getting of Wisdom, Laura’s success is dependent on her learning to cheat and deceive, to ‘shut the ears and eyes of her soul.’ Beresford thought it wonderful that a heroine could be aggressive and often nasty and cheat and lie her way to success…The people around her, the conforming Australians I knew so well, seemed to me to deserve defeat…” –Peter Coleman with an excerpt from Bruce Beresford

               Laura is a heroine that audiences can identify with, an element that in so many Australian films, according to Stratton, because she was down-to-earth and tangible. The film was shot all over Victorian Melbourne with few shots of the Outback when Laura visited home. Like many Australian films, the characters are ordinary and there is an emphasis on appearance wherein the main character is portrayed as the ugly duckling. She is the outcast not only because she comes from a poor family but because she is not pretty like the rest of the girls. As usual, the main character seems to be on a journey through life, a life in which she is struggling to find herself and be content. This film leaves the audience feeling satisfied and at ease with the ending because in this case, the audience knows where Laura will end up. We know that she is coming back into her own once again and disregarding the ways she were taught at school in order to become an individual again. Communication is important; as Laura stood up for herself against the bullies she faced. Here, close knit female to female relationships override the romantic relationship between a male and a female. British influence as well as the beginning of the Australian Victorian era is prominent as the female characters are being geared toward proper etiquette, decorum, and marriage.