Starring: Susannah Fowle; Barry Humphries; John Waters
Director: Bruce Beresford
Distributor: Umbrella Entertainment
Was there ever a more wonderful name concocted for an awkward, outsider character than ‘Laura Tweedle Rambothan’? Lumbered with such title, the anti-heroine in The Getting of Wisdom has a tough time fitting in with all the upper crust girls at Melbourne’s Presbyterian Ladies College. Her class mates, played by the likes of Sigrid Thornton and Kerry Armstrong, fall about in fits of laughter when they first hear it. And as if that wasn’t enough, her mother has sent her off from the “scruffy” little post office in the bush where she lives, with a suitcase full of the most flamboyant frocks any of them have ever clapped eyes on. Fronting up on day one in a particularly colourful specimen, poor Laura looks like the fairy on top of the Christmas tree, or as one of the teachers remarks, a “double dahlia”. But Laura is a proud young lass and smart as a whip too, and she lashes back with her precocious intellect, startling both students and teachers alike.
Laura is the alter ego of Henry Handel (or Ethel) Richardson, who wrote the original novel, and Susannah Fowle embodies her spirit wholeheartedly, performing a lively rendition of ‘Home, Sweet Home’ on the piano and quoting freely from MacBeth. These are just some of the acts that cause shockwaves to rattle through the old establishment school, which is headed up by the rather lecherous Reverend Strachey (Barry Humphries) and Mrs Gurley, played by Robert Helpman’s sister, Sheila.
Like Picnic at Hanging Rock, which was made a few years prior, the film is set in a girls boarding school in the early 1900’s. But Laura is no Miranda and she certainly doesn’t waft about in a dream like haze, sniffing pretty flowers. This teenager is hell bent on staking a claim in society and is only distracted from her mission when she develops a crush on the head girl, Evelyn Suitor (Hilary Ryan), who alone recognises her talent and treats her with unusual kindness. As producer Philip Adams says in the DVD interview, “it’s the story of an ugly duckling who is taken under the wing of a swan.” It’s also, perhaps, Australia’s first lesbian love story.