Flowering inside of a perfectly ordinary girl
 is a totally extraordinary woman

(1978)

Runtime:  101 minutes
Country:  Australia
Language:  English
Certification:  PG

Director:         Bruce Beresford
Producer:       Phillip Adams
Screenplay:    Eleanor Witcombe
Adaptation of The Getting of Wisdom a novel by Ethel Florence Robertson written under the pseudonym of Henry Handel Richardson
Original Music:            Sigismund Thalberg

Non-Original Music:    Franz Schubert and Arthur Sullivan
Cinematography:         Donald McAlpine
Editor:                           William M. Anderson
Production Manager:  Russell Karel
Assistant Director:       Michael Lake
 
Cast 
Susannah Fowle....         Laura Tweedle Rambotham
Julia Blake....                  Isabella Shepherd
Dorothy Bradley....        Miss Hicks
Kay Eklund....                Mrs. Rambotham
Max Fairchild....             Mr. O'Donnell  
Jan Friedl....                   Miss Snodgrass
Diana Greentree....         Maisie Shepherd
Maggie Kirkpatrick....    Sarah
Monica Maughan....       Miss Day
Candy Raymond....        Miss Zielinski
Terence Donovan....       Tom McNamara
Kerry Armstrong....       Kate
Celia De Burgh....          M.P.
Kim Deacon....               Lilith
Alix Longman....            Chinky
Jo-Anne Moore....          Tilly
Amanda Ring....             Cupid
Hilary Ryan....                Evelyn
Janet Shaw....                 Bertha
Karen Sutton....              Pin
Sigrid Thornton....          Maria
Sheila Helpmann....        Mrs. Gurley
Patricia Kennedy....        Miss Chapman
John Waters....               Rev. Shepherd
Barry Humphries....       Rev. Strachey
 
Production Companies
•   Australian Film Commission
•   Nine Network Australia
•   Southern Cross Films Pty. Ltd.
•   Victorian Film Corporation
 
Distributors
•   Atlantic Releasing Corp. (1980) (USA)
•   Roadshow Entertainment
•   Videoscope
 
Release Dates
•   Australia – 17 August 1978
•   Canada – 20 September 1978 (Toronto Film Festival)
•   Finland – 21 December 1979
 

Gross Box Office Take:  $AUD 982,000

 
Awards (all in 1978)
•   AFI Award – Best Screenplay, Adapted – Eleanor Witcombe
•   (nominated) AFI Award –  Best Achievement in Costume Design – Anna Senior
•   (nominated) AFI Award –  Best Achievement in Production Design – John Stoddard and
                                                Richard D. Kent (assistant)
•   (nominated) AFI Award –  Best Achievement in Sound – Desmond Bone, Gary Wilkins,
                                                William Anderson and Peter Fenton
•   (nominated) AFI Award –  Best Actress in a Supporting Role – Patricia Kennedy
 

Reviews

http://www.fbo.com.au/movie.asp?ID=25359 

Associated Press [undated] Accessed 22/04/06
            A joy to behold

http://www.fbo.com.au/movie.asp?ID=25359

Screen International [undated] Accessed 22/04/06
A Gem sparkling with humour and intelligence

http://www.fbo.com.au/movie.asp?ID=25359

Boasting great performances from Barry Humphries, John Waters, and future star Sigrid Thornton and Kerry Armstrong

http://movies2.nytimes.com/gst/movies/movie.html?v_id=19608
Hal Erickson [undated] New York Times Accessed 22/04/06
The suffocating repressiveness of the Victorian era is superbly realized by director Bruce Beresford in The Getting of Wisdom… Despite its somber dramatic overtones, the film contains moments of uninhibited humour, a trademark of director Beresford

http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/films/films.php?id=7642
Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat [undated] Accessed 22/04/06
Susannah Fowle’s revealing portrait gathers together some of the most painful sides of trying to win the approval of one’s peers during adolescence

http://www.timeout.com/film/70140.html

Time Out Film Guide 13 [undated] Accessed 22/04/06
…achieves little by way of justifying an adaptation of Ethel Richardson’s autobiographical novel of 1910.  A perky feminine independence may have proved controversial at the time of its writing, but here emerges as a mere cliché-ridden prelude to an unseen but inevitable brilliant career

http://efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=8036&reviewer=104
Stephen Groenewegen 23/07/03 E Film Critic Accessed 22/04/06
The Getting of Wisdom is a well-crafted literary adaptation…The film is nicely directed (by Bruce Beresford) and photographed (by Donald McAlpine), but suffers from trailing two more successful Australian films about oppressive boarding schools (The Devil’s Playground and, especially, Picnic at Hanging Rock)

Interviews (found in the 2-disc collector’s edition)

•    “Telling Schoolgirl Tales” – The original feature length documentary featuring exclusive
      interviews with Bruce Beresford, Phillip Adams, Don McAlpine, Barry Humphries, John
      Waters and many more
•    50-minute audio radio interview with Bruce Beresford, Phillip Adams, Barry Humphries
      and Susannah Fowle

On-Line Presence
            Most searches on the internet brought up synopses of the plot as opposed to reviews or critiques.  The only interviews that could be found are supposedly on the 2-disc DVD collector’s edition, and could not be found anywhere online.  Most facts were gathered from the Internet Movie Database.  (<http://imdb.com/title/tt0076079/>) It is not surprising that reviews and box office facts were hard to find considering the movie was produced in the 70’s and the internet wasn’t around for another two decades.
            Two very interesting references to the movie were found online though:

a movie titled “The Hidden History of Homosexual Australia,” written and directed by Con Anemogiannis which discusses the history of women playing cross-gender roles and “passing” as men in Australian cinema.  It also discusses the fine line between homosexual relationships and romantic relationships which is found in The Getting of Wisdom.  A review of the movie can be found at:
http://www.smh.com.au/news/Reviews/The-Hidden-History-of-Homosexual-Australia/2005/03/09/1110316087915.html 
 
http://taylorandfrancis.metapress.com/(5fpljyawv2yfjr45jtcntqim)/app/home/contribution.  
    asp?referrer=parent&backto=issue,4,14;journal,24,28;linkingpublicationresults,1:113516,1 

This article from the archives of the Taylor & Francis group was originally published in a journal called Women’s Writing in 1998.  Titled “Walking Round the World:  Miles Franklin, Henry Handel Richardson and Christina Stead as expatriate Australian writers,” author, Catherine Pratt, discusses the hardships Henry Handel Richardson had to endure to see a successful uptake of her book.  She looks at the problems of publishing as a woman in a society with masculinist values and compares them to the troubles of publishing an Australian story as an expatriate.

 

Wisdom is the principal thing; 
therefore get wisdom: 
and with all thy getting get understanding.  
Proverbs IV.7

 

 

Critical Review of Film
            The Getting of Wisdom, was adapted from Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson(under the pseudonym of Henry Handel Richardson)’s 1910 autobiographical novel of the same name,   The movie follows a 13 year-old girl named Laura Tweedle Rambotham who leaves her rural outback home for a turn-of-the-century, Victorian, all-girls school in Melbourne.  Right away it is obvious that Laura’s humble upbringing will clash with the “well bred” girls as the first words spoken to Laura make fun of the hat her mother made for her.  Director, Bruce Beresford, uses symbolism to enhance Laura’s “fish-out-of-water” feeling by making her stand out in a bright red dress and hat while all the other girls wear black, white and muted colours.
            The story continues with Laura longing for acceptance, and the other girls bringing her down.  Lilith is a particular obstacle for Laura, embarrassing her during prayer and constantly threatening her.  Laura hates Lilith for the power she holds over her when she threatens to reveal the fact that Laura’s mother is just a common postmistress.  Laura would be humiliated if this information was leaked to her class-conscious peers.  Laura and Lilith come head-to-head at the principal’s house.  The girls are expected to showcase their skills for the principal but Lilith puts up a fuss about her pinky hurting which will prevent her from performing.  As soon as she thinks she has gotten away without having to perform, Laura perks up and says that she can accompany Lilith on the piano.  It is obvious that Lilith was not prepared and hasn’t learned her song, but Laura goes on to play the piano beautifully and show off her virtuosity. 
            When Laura comes back for the next session of school, a new girl is living in her room.  It is made clear, that just like Laura, the new girl does not have much money and feels out of place.  It seems that Laura will finally have the chance to make a friend who understands what she is going through.  It is heartbreaking to watch as Laura is rude and crass to the new girl because that’s how her peers expect her to act, and their acceptance is all she can think about.  The fine line between homosexual relationship and romantic friendship comes in to play here when the new girl speaks very fondly of Laura, shows interest in her, and is eventually expelled from the school after stealing money to buy Laura a ring.
            The biggest gossip in the new school year revolves around the new, young, attractive minister, Reverend Shepherd.  Through a series of fortunate coincidences and a weekend stay at the new minister’s house, a rumour starts that he and Laura are having an affair.  Even though the minister was a rude and unamiable person, Laura sees an opportunity and makes up stories about how poor the minister is, and how mean his wife is in order to proliferate the rumour.  Soon all the girls are engrossed by Laura’s stories, she is getting the acceptance she wanted, and she even starts to believe the rumours herself.  Her new popularity comes crashing down when another girl goes to the minister’s house and exposes Laura.  Beresford’s symbolic prowess shines when Laura is hiding in a greenhouse, and all the girls push their way through leaves and trees to confront her.  The girls’ loud attack through the flora creates a very savage-like, jungle scene, making them look like animals about to devour Laura, which in essence they have been doing the whole movie as she conforms to their ways.
            After her shenanigans with the minister, even the school mistresses have stopped respecting Laura.  She finds solace in Evelyn, an older rich girl who is regarded as the beauty of the school.  It seems like an odd friendship, but as one school mistress explains, “it’s perfect; no one will talk to Laura, and Evelyn talks to no one.”  Homosexual undertones come in again as Laura gets extremely hurt when Evelyn talks with boys instead of her, and then to calm her down, Evelyn cradles Laura in bed.  Unfortunately Evelyn leaves during the school year because she has been turned off by Laura’s dependence on her, and she notices that Laura’s studies are falling behind.
            When the movie comes to an end, Laura is alone with her music.  The girls are still picking on her because they know she is not prepared for the final exams.  Laura cheats on her history exam to pass, and then finishes the year by winning a scholarship for her musical abilities.  Everyone is proud and smiling at Laura, and it seems she finally figured out that the path to acceptance is to cheat, betray, lie and hate.  As she walks away from the school, Laura thrusts her belongings onto her sister and goes running off into the distance.  This seemingly ludicrous act is significant because it shows that although Laura has been completely focused on acceptance and conformity, she still has a sense of individuality and self-worth.

Critical Uptake of the Film

            According to the jacket of the VHS, “This film smashed all Australian box office records, and has done very well indeed in New York and Los Angeles.”  Through extensive internet research this could not be confirmed, but according to www.moviemarshal.com/idg-australianfilms.html, The Getting of Wisdom ranks 156th in the top 438 grossing Australian films.  It brought in $AUD 982,000 which is $861,835 shy of the average.  The public was ready for Wisdom since only two years earlier The Devil’s Playground (Fred Schepisi 1976) which addressed males growing up at a private catholic school, was released.  Wisdom was successful compared to Playground which only made $334,000.  Picnic at Hanging Rock came out three years before Wisdom.  It also addressed adolescent girls in a private school, but adds an edge of drama and mystery which probably explains its higher earnings ($5,134,300 in box office sales).  Critics enjoyed the film because of its very realistic portrayal of the trials and tribulations of an adolescent seeking acceptance.  

Director:  Bruce Beresford
            Beresford, an Australian native, seems to have a fondness for a few types of scripts.  He appears to like autobiographies as The Getting of Wisdom and one of his most successful films, Breaker Morant (1980), are both autobiographies.  He also seems to have a strong affinity for adaptations.  His films, The Getting of Wisdom, The Club (1980), and The Fringe Dwellers (1986) are all based on novels.  He even did a movie called Don’s Party (1976)which was his adaptation of a play by the same name.
 Beresford is a very successful director today, and although The Getting of Wisdom may not have launched him to greatness, it certainly helped him and a few others get their feet wet.  Every movie mentioned in the above paragraph had Donald McAlpine at the helm of cinematography.  McAlpine used darker muted lighting to show the contrast between the dark grim life Laura leads when she allows herself to be absorbed by her peers as opposed to the very bright white room that she shares with Evelyn where she feels safe and has a sense of belonging.  McAlpine left Beresford and went on to huge successes such as Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann 2001), Romeo + Juliet (Baz Luhrmann 1996), and most recently The Chronicles of Narnia (Andrew Adamson 2005).  All the movies in the first paragraph also have William Anderson in common, who was editor for all the films.  He went on to taste success when he edited The Dead Poet’s Society (Peter Weir 1989)and The Truman Show (Peter Weir 1998).
The Getting of Wisdom was one of Beresford’s earliest films, and it no doubt gave him confidence to try out daring films like The Fringe Dwellers (1986)and Puberty Blues (1981) both which explore the delicate issue of being a teenage girl and worrying about conforming to peers.
Beresford is most well know for films such as Double Jeopardy (1999), Driving Miss Daisy (1989), Puberty Blues (1981), Breaker Morant (1980),Barry McKenzie Holds His Own (1974) and The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972). 

The Getting of Wisdom in Relation to Australian Cinema
            The Getting of Wisdom is important to Australian cinema because it is a starting point for Bruce Beresford, Donald McAlpine and William Anderson’s careers.  It is significant because it can be described as a woman’s film, a comedy, a teen movie and even a musical.
Jeanine Basinger defines a woman’s film as “a movie that places at the centre of its universe a female who is trying to deal with emotional, social, and psychological problems that are specifically connected to the fact that she is a woman” (Basinger 20).  All of Laura’s problems revolve around the fact that she is a woman and in an all-girls school.  The entire movie we watch Laura deal with the emotions associated with rejection.  We see her constantly beat down because of her social status.  Susannah Fowle uses excellent facial expressions to show the inner psychological struggle Laura has when she decides wether or not to lie to the girls about the minister.  Wisdom easily fits the criteria for woman’s film.
            The most basic definition of a comedy is a movie which aims to get a rise out of, or amuse an audience into laughter.  The audience gets quite a few good laughs out of Wisdom.  One of the most notable being when Lilith waits for the school mistress to take her dentures out before calling upon her to hear her struggle to annunciate using only gums. 
            Teen pics are films “which deals with the drama or comedy of growing up in a specific social environment” (Martin 12), with main characters ranging from 13-19 years of age.  Wisdom easily fits into this category seeing as though the movie is based around 13 year-old Laura’s experience growing up in a class-conscious boarding school environment.  Teen pics are closely associated with coming-of-age movies “that have a young character or characters who, by the end of the story, have developed in some way, through the undertaking of responsibility, or by learning a lesson” (Wikipedia 1).  The last scene of Laura running into the distance solidifies the fact that Laura has learned throughout the movie that you shouldn’t have to sacrifice your identity and self-worth to gain the acceptance of your peers.  Sigrid Thornton, who played Maria in Wisdom, also had a small part in The FJ Holden (Michael Thornhill, 1977), another coming-of-age film.
            Normally musicals are thought of as big flashy productions where all the dialogue is sung.  But in reality, a musical is a film which simply “contains a narrative in which the story is at least partly advanced by expression in song and dance” (Gillard 1).  A critical review of the plot for Wisdom will quickly reveal the fact that without the aid of the piano music, the plot would never advance.  If Laura had not played that afternoon in the principal’s house, the hatred between her and Lilith would never have solidified.  The minister would not have set up lessons for her, and as a result she never would have met Evelyn.
Tom O’Regan describes Australian cinema as “a genre or type of dominant film-making or as so many thematic regularities – a masculinist cinema hypercritical of family life” (O’Regan 7).  The girls are in a school which is in essence teaching them to be respectable, submissive housewives, and they are surrounded by talk of needing to get married and have babies.  All these ideas come from the male-centred culture typical of Australian film.  At the minister’s house for dinner, a common glimpse of a bleak Australian nuclear family is seen as the minister and his wife are obviously miserable in their home life, and at one point someone breaks out into song at the dinner table.  Tom O’Regan also says that “Australian cinema is often celebrated… for its ordinariness” (O’Regan 198) meaning that films show life simply as is, without any flourish or flashiness.  This idea sometimes turns into a theme of ugliness as films focus on regular every-day people and not the beauties normally seen in American films.  There are many camera shots that zoom right in on the girl’s faces, revealing all their pimples and warts, and quite frequently Laura’s overbite.  This is very characteristic of Australian film which likes to focus on the ugliness and ordinariness of people. 
In the end though, The Getting of Wisdom is important to Australian cinema if for nothing but the fact that it features the great Barry Humphries (Dame Edna) in a rarely seen, straight role.

Works Cited
Basinger, Jeanine 1993, A Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, Knopf, New
            York:  20.
Gillard, Garry 2006, “Chapter 7:  The Musical”, Ten Types of Australian Film, Murdoch University.
Martin, Adrian 1989, "The teen movie: why bother?" Cinema Papers, 75: 12.
O’Regan, Tom 1996, Australian National Cinema: Chapter 8: ‘Unity’.  Routledge, London: 7.
Wikipedia <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coming_of_age> accessed 24/04/06

 

A critical review by Melanie Feltmate 2006