The Getting of Wisdom Review
Australia, 1900. Fourteen-year-old Laura Tweedle Rambotham (Susannah Fowle) is sent by the widowed mother, a country postmistress, to the Presbyterian Ladies' College in Melbourne. Her fellow pupils mock her for her odd ways, her clothes (hand-made by her mother) and think her a show-off. Her teachers, led by headmaster the Reverend Strachey (Barry Humphries) try to mould her into a Victorian young lady, but they have a fight on their hands.
Henry Handel Richardson was the pseudonym of Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson (1870-1946), not the first nor the last woman to disguise her sex in print. She was herself a boarder at the Presbyterian Ladies' College from 1883 and this formed the basis of her novel The Getting of Wisdom, published in 1910. Her greatest work is considered to be the trilogy The Fortunes of Richard Mahony. Her 1908 novel Maurice Guest followed Laura's story after school and into Europe and was itself filmed in 1954 as Rhapsody, with Elizabeth Taylor in the lead role.
Given that Laura's age is twelve or thirteen for all but the last two chapters of the novel (upped a couple of years for the film), The Getting of Wisdom would be published nowadays as a children's or young-adult novel. Needless to say, it has been read by many children in Australia especially. One of these was Bruce Beresford, who wanted to make a film of it from the beginning of his career. However, that had begun with The Adventures of Barry McKenzie and its sequel, both popular hits but recipients of such critical vitriol – much of it objecting to its portrayals of Aussies as drunken, chundering vulgarians – that Beresford thought his career had been irreparably damaged. No-one would consider him to make a PG-rated historical piece with a mostly-female cast, which was also considered a little too similar to Picnic at Hanging Rock. A 1973 film made in England, Side by Side, featuring Humphries and a Parkinsons-debilitated Terry-Thomas, was considered a disaster (I haven't seen it). However, Beresford then made his film version of David Williamson's play Don's Party, which became one of the key films of the Australian Film Revival. So Beresford was able to realise his dream project.
Playing the schoolgirls were a number of actresses who had barely if ever appeared on screen before, including Kim Deacon, Hilary Ryan and Sigrid Thornton. Susannah Fowle was picked from among over a thousand Melbourne schoolgirls to play Laura. Surrounding the younger performers were some highly experienced older actors and actresses, including Barry Humphries (an admirer of Richardson's) in a non-comic role. Also in the cast you can find Noni Hazlehurst, seen in one shot only, filmed from above, as a maid.
The novel tends to the episodic, which is not something that Eleanor Witcombe's script overcomes. It's a common complaint that many Australian films of this time, for all their strengths, tend not to have strongly-structured screenplays, and this is not an exception. The compensations are plentiful though: the acting and the look of the film, photographed by Beresford's regular DP of the time, Don McAlpine. Hints of incipient lesbianism (Richardson herself was lesbian or bisexual), in the form of Laura's crush on an older girl, are more forthright than in the novel, though kept within PG bounds.
The Getting of Wisdom inevitably invites comparison with another film made two years later, also based on a classic novel by a woman writing under a male pseudonym, My Brilliant Career, from the 1901 novel by Miles Franklin (Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin, 1879-1954), directed by Gillian Armstrong. Comparisons are even more inevitable given that both films were scripted by Eleanor Witcombe, photographed by Don McAlpine and costume-designed by Anna Senior, and Julia Blake and Patricia Kennedy acted in both. Although it had been suggested that a woman should direct The Getting of Wisdom, Beresford was adamant that he should do it. (Until Armstrong made her film in 1979, no woman had directed a 35mm feature in Australia since Paulette McDonagh's last film, Three Minutes Silence in 1933, though Turkish immigrant Ayten Kuyululu had made the 16mm feature The Golden Cage in 1975.) I'm certainly not going to suggest that only women should make films with “female” subject matter, nor men only make “male” films, far from it. Four years later, Beresford again showed his feminine (and feminist-lite) side in Puberty Blues. While The Getting of Wisdom is an engaging, often funny (though occasionally a little over-broadly so), good-looking and well-acted film, Armstrong's film feels sharper and, quite possibly due to being directed by a woman, feels personal. It's a difficult distinction to put your finger on, but it's there. While there's nothing wrong with Susannah Fowle's lead performance, it's one she never equalled since, while Judy Davis went on to become one of Australia's leading actresses.
That said, The Getting of Wisdom won the AFI Award for Best Adapted Screenplay and was nominated for its costume and production design and sound, and for Patricia Kennedy as Best Supporting Actress. It was not nominated for Best Film or Best Director (which went to Newsfront and its director Phillip Noyce), which seems just. The Getting of Wisdom is high in the second rank of Australian films of the 70s, and indeed Beresford's career as it's surpassed by Don's Party and his next film bar one, Breaker Morant, just not in the top flight. It had a UK cinema release in 1979, appeared on VHS in 1995 and has been shown on British television several times, though this is its UK DVD premiere.
The Getting of Wisdom is released by Comtemporary Films on a dual-layered DVD encoded for all regions. It's a repackaging of Umbrella Entertainment's single-disc Australian edition from 2006, and I was sent a copy of that to review. (Umbrella also released a two-disc Collector's Edition, which has an 83-minute making-of documentary, a 55-minute radio interview and a stills gallery on its second disc.)
The DVD is in a ratio of 1.78:1 (opened up slightly from the intended 1.85:1) and anamorphically enhanced. The film had a restoration mid-decade, from which this DVD transfer obviously benefited. It's certainly colourful but not sharp, obviously dating from before the time when HD masters became standard, though no doubt some of the softness is due to Beresford and McAlpine's intended look for the film. Shadow detail is good. There's occasional telecine wobble (such as in the opening shot)
The soundtrack is the original mono, mixed a little quietly – I had to turn the volume up. That said, the dialogue is generally clear and is well-balanced with the music (including selections from Schubert and Arthur Sullivan). There are no subtitles for the hard-of-hearing, a persistent drawback of Umbrella discs.
The only extra is the theatrical trailer (2:29), very softly transferred, contrasty and a little battered. On the Umbrella disc, which may not be on Contemporary's disc, are some trailers for other Umbrella DVDs: The Fringe Dwellers, Travelling North, Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Picture Show Man.