Friday, November 30, 2018

The Getting of Wisdom ( 1977 )

"Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding." - Proverbs 4:7

Laura Tweedle Rambotham, a delightfully awkward country girl, quickly discovers that at the exclusive Presbyterian Ladies' College in Melbourne, the getting of wisdom entails learning to conform to the behavior of your classmates, regardless of how stuffy and repressive their attitudes may be. It also means following the rules of socializing which she, unfortunately, has not fathomed. Nor will she by the conclusion of the film. 

The Getting of Wisdom, a 1977 Australian production, follows the plight of the plain, unconventional Laura from her first day at school to her graduation from the college four years later. She arrives as a talented, imaginative, outspoken, and overly-confident thirteen-year-old and leaves as a pompous, irritable, and all the more insecure young woman. 

One assumes that as the story unfolds the gradual transformation of an ugly duckling into a beautiful swan full of womanly graces will become apparant...but this does not happen. It is this aspect that made Henry Handel Richardson's classic 1910 novel "The Getting of Wisdom" so amusing. Director Bruce Beresford ( Driving Miss Daisy, Fried Green Tomatoes ), who had delighted in reading the novel as a teenager, wanted to keep this feature of the book when he adapted it to film. 

So often our schoolgirl heroines are shy lovable lambs who are thrown amongst a pack of worldly-wise teenagers eager to toy with their innocence. But Laura is nothing of the kind. She is utterly assured of her own genius and anticipates settling into the school with relative ease. She hopes to impress her way to success both academically and socially but finds that no one appreciates a show-off. After her disappointing arrival - and her first cry - she begins to build an emotional armor constructed of suspicion, fear, and self-doubt. 

As producer Philip Alford commented, "this ugly duckling never becomes a swan, not in the film, but she is taken under the wing of a swan". This swan, the elegant Evelyn Suitor, is one of the few people to have confidence in Laura and like her for who she is - a thoroughly selfish and crusty little girl. She gives Laura the opportunity to soften her heart and be more open and tender but Laura is blind to this. We can only hope that she loses her irritability and obstinacy later in life. 

The Getting of Wisdom, a coming-of-age drama set in the early 1900s, touches on themes of romance, friendship, possessiveness, and acceptance. It was a film project very dear to Bruce Beresford's heart. He felt that there were many qualities in Laura's character that adolescents could relate to, which is quite true. The Ladies College, like most schools, is a microcosm of society where one can study and learn the rules of social intercourse. Unfortunately, the college's inmates are primarily shallow individuals.

"Everyone knows my mother is just a postmistress and does embroidery. I know what it is like not to have pocket money and beautiful clothes."
When Laura first arrives, she discovers that having a mother who works for a living is considered by her prestigious peers to be deeply shameful. Hence, she comes to downplay her homelife and searches instead for other means of gaining acceptance among her classmates. One method is through lies. 

During her second year at the school, she concocts an illicit affair between herself and the handsome new minister Reverend Shepard ( John Waters ), a fantasy that she almost comes to believe herself. She basks in the fame this lie creates for her, but only for a short while. Once her deception is exposed, she is ostracized by all her classmates....except Evelyn. This lovely senior takes a shine to the imaginative youngster. They share a common bond in Schubert and a skepticism towards authority figures, especially the kind that the college is comprised of: uncompassionate self-righteous dictatorial teachers. These include the draconian headmistress Mrs. Gurley, the Reverend Strachey, and Miss Zielinski ( Candy Raymond ). Only Miss Chapman ( Patricia Kennedy ) shows an inkling of interest in the girls, but she does not garner their respect, hence they take no notice of her. 
Like the book, The Getting of Wisdom is a mockery of class, a skillful study of human behavior brimming with shrewd humor, although this humor is much more subdued onscreen. The film is quite faithful to the novel except that Beresford chose to shift Laura's literary ambition to a musical one. Interestingly, he also added a strong sapphic undercurrent, making Laura not only emotionally but sexually attracted to Evelyn. 

"What have those little monsters been telling you? Probably a pack of lies."

Evelyn represents the ideal that Laura is seeking ( Beresford even hints that she represents Wisdom herself ) and while there is satisfaction in being near to and loved by one so graceful it is not enough. Laura's worship of Evelyn and her infatuation with the exoticism that such a sophisticated older student would choose her as a companion eventually turns into obsession and possessiveness with Laura declaring, "I'll never share you with anybody!". In the novel, Evelyn takes this in her usual good humor and the two remain friends after their school years are over. However, in the film, Laura's jealousy turns to bitterness which is played out realistically in one of the many biting scenes in the picture.
16-year-old Susannah Fowle, a Melbourne schoolgirl, was selected from among 6,000 applicants to play the part of Laura. She had no prior acting experience and yet gives a passionate performance primarily through subtle gestures and facial expressions. Fowle makes the character as dislikable as possible; in fact, much harsher than the book leads us to believe her to be. Only at times does Fowle permit us a glimpse at Laura's heart. 

Hillary Ryan, who plays the part of Evelyn Suitor, was an American-born beauty whom Beresford had discovered in London. She should have gone on to have a long career in film but, instead, only made a handful of appearances in television. 
John Waters is marvelous as the dashing but thoroughly boorish new minister and the rest of the cast is equally well-selected, particularly the schoolgirls. All of the teachers are merely caricatures overshadowed by the girls whom they teach. Barry Humphries aka Dame Edna, was an interesting if not daring choice for the role of the puritanical Reverand Strachey, and Sheila Helpmann ( as fearsome looking as her brother Robert ) is suitably impregnable as Mrs.Gurley. 

The cinematography by Don McAlpine is beautiful and innovative. He featured an interesting selection of shots, mixing high and low angle compositions and wide-angles in place of close-ups. 
The Getting of Wisdom is built up of short numerous episodic sequences. While the film unfolds slowly enough these individual scenes are played out too quickly. They are also filled with subtle touches which unfortunately are not emphasized enough to make the audience take notice of them. For example, in the finale, Laura's last-minute decision to play Schubert's Impromptu ( a piece which she had played twice with Evelyn ) at her piano recital instead of the announced Beethoven's Sonata No. 21 is a final touch of defiance to the school she is leaving and an acknowledgment that she is still besotted with Evelyn. The camera pans several teachers and students as Laura begins the piece, but it fails to show the reaction of Mrs. Hicks, the music teacher, whose expression would have clued the audience that Laura was not playing the intended composition. It takes repetitive viewings to fully appreciate scenes like this but if the audience is not hooked on the initial viewing then it is unlikely they will return to give the film a more thorough look. 

Eleanor Whitcomb's screenplay fails to resolve Laura's character and this results in a loss of coherence of the entire film. At the conclusion of the picture we are left waiting for Laura to release the pent-up emotions of the past school year and toss her hat in the air as the poster suggests, but even this she does not do. 
The sum of its parts simply does not equal a whole but overall, the pleasure derived from these individual scenes more than compensate for its inadequacies and The Getting of Wisdom is still worth a viewing. 


  1. Excellent review of a movie that needs the attention. Bruce Beresford showed this movie to me...well, he showed to about 250 people when he gave a guest lecture at Indiana University in 1981 or '82. My wife and I had never heard of him, but we enjoyed THE GETTING OF WISDOM and have been Beresford fans ever since. His BREAKER MORANT is an excellent film and I also strongly recommend TENDER MERCIES. I do like DRIVING MISS DAISY, even if it seems a little too commercial at times.

    1. How interesting! I would have liked to have attended that, too...unfortunately, I wasn't even born then. Beresford's style of filming for The Getting of Wisdom makes me want to explore more of his films, too. I'll check out Breaker Morant and Fried Green Tomatoes next. Thanks for your comment, Rick...and I agree, the film needs more attention.