Home Video Hovel- The Getting of Wisdom, by Jack Fleischer
Some movies are like buttery popcorn: tasty fluff that gets stale before the year is out. Some films are masterpieces: instantly iconic and standing the test of time. In between there are a few, small, germinal flicks, which gain importance not from their content, but from the context of cinema history. The 1978 Australian film, The Getting of Wisdom, is this third type. Recently released on DVD by the Kino Lorber Company, it’s a movie that finds much of its success as a historical product.
Based on a popular Australian novel from 1910, this is a movie all about the disillusionment of youth. If I were to be flip and pop I’d say that this was Welcome to the Dollhouse meets School Ties, set at an all female Hogwarts. If I wanted to be more literary, I’d say this feels a bit like Catcher in the Rye with a female protagonist and set in 1890’s Australia. But, to be accurate, this is the story of the unfortunately named “Laura Tweedle Rambotham.” She’s an intelligent child from the Aussie sticks, shipped off to an all girl school in the vastly metropolitan city of Melbourne. At school she must deal with abusive students, tyrannical administrators, and some rather aggressive servants of the church. This is a story about social class, the effects of abuse in a closed system, and perhaps even love.
The historical significance of The Getting of Wisdom is most attributable to its director Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy, Tender Mercies). This was a passion project for him that he pursued tooth and nail. His care for the material is apparent, not only in the final product, but also in the extensive feature length documentary included on the DVD, Telling School Girl Tales: The Making of The Getting of Wisdom. In this fairly engrossing doc we gain insights into the recent history of Australian film, along with what went into making this specific piece of legendary Australian pop cinema. Other features on this DVD include text from an original press kit, some random production stills, the film’s trailer, and a wonky attempt to show the original poster. This documentary is by far the most fascinating thing on the disc. In fact, I think film historians should get the DVD for this documentary, then watch the movie only if they have time. The Getting of Wisdom is tedious, and from what I can tell, that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Okay, that’s not completely fair.
The film does succeed in small ways. For example, the casting is excellent. Many of the film’s young students are new to the screen, including the lead, Susannah Fowle. Yet all of the actresses bring a sincere reality to the story. You can see humanity in even some of the cruelest bullies. The adults don’t fare as well in terms of humanity, but they do make excellent villains. It’s interesting to note that one of the two male leads is Barry Humphries (aka “Dame Edna”) convincingly and capably playing a preacher who seems to love cuddling with brimstone. This film also creates small and entertaining bits of black humor amidst a bleak story. The problem is that when I say bleak, I mean stripped bare and paddled raw. One of the most impressive aspects of the film is that while the characters develop, they don’t change or grow.
This is 101 minutes of watching a bright, (even if obnoxiously precocious), young woman get an emotional beat down. The teachers are self-serving, cruel, and boorish, traits they then force onto their students, which they then force onto young Laura. Even when the film stumbles into love story territory, it’s predominantly one sided and always anguished. The Getting of Wisdom is a movie where our heroine’s ending is at best bittersweet, and at worst, delusional.
What more, from a technical standpoint the DVD version of this film also isn’t the best. The film image shakes as if shot on a Steadicam, but you soon realize that it’s just a poor transfer.
This movie is for fans of the original book, made by a fan of the book. The documentary is for students of film history. Both have their fans, and both are done well enough for their originally intended audiences, but neither seems destined or designed to reach a broader audience. In the end this DVD is a great example of the whole being worth more than its individual parts.