"The Getting of Wisdom" is probably getting around on the recent success of "My Brilliant Career," but it poses iffy questions. For example: Can audiences that warmed to a story about the aspirations of an impulsive but endearing young woman coming of age in Victorian Australia feel similarly attracted to a hateful ingenue from the same neck of the woods?
"My Brilliant Career," made in 1978, just completed an eight-month engagement at the Key, where "The Getting of Wisdom," made in 1976, opens today. Both films are derived from turn-of-the-century novels by young, pseudonymous literary women (Miles Franklin for "Career" and Henry Handel Richardson, an awesome alias if there ever was one, for "Wisdom") who made a splash celebrating unconventional adolescent heroines who were presumably romanticized self-portraits. The film versions also utilized the same screenwriter (Eleanor Witcombe) and cinematographer (Don McAlpine).
The radically different results suggest that "My Brilliant Career" was more agreeable material and that its director, Gillian Armstrong, possessed a more compassionate historical imagination than Bruce Beresfore, who supervised the ostentatious displays os snobbishness that pass for devastating social commentary in "The Getting of Wisdom."
The protagonist of "Wisdom" is a precocious schoolgirl called Laura Tweedle Ramsbotham, one of many strikes against her upon entering the exclusive Ladies' School of Melbourne in the twilight of Victoria's reign. Laura has been afforded this opportunity for advancement by the industry and thrift of her mother, a widow who runs a post office and general store in the outback.
One's natural inclination to identify with a poor, aspiring country lass transported to a stuffy academic citadel is neutralized by the insufferable vanity of Laura herself. She arrives at the Ladies' School with a towering superiority complex. Despite the scowls lavished upon her by the disapproving headmistress, Mrs. Gurley (Sheila Helpmann, setting the modern scowl-holding record), and the insults and abuses heaped upon her by remoreselessly bitchy, snooty classmates, Laura contrives to outbitch and outsnoot them all. When she leaves alma mater four years later, heading for Leipzig with a music scholarship, Laura seems even more confirmed in her selfishness.
An ironic success story? Presumably. Despite her virtuosity at the piano and her intellectual pretensions, Laura must cheat on a final exam to graduate. Nevertheless Beresford's depiction of the school is too much of a vehement, humorless caricature to sustain ironic meanings. The snob element so outrageously overdrawn that one experiences it as more of a bad joke than a social pressure.
In "My Brilliant Career," Judy Davis projected a ruddy beauty and emotional quickness that the camera could feast on. Susannah Fowle, the young actress cast as Laura, accentuates her character's off-putting attributes. Fowle's pale, narrow, ferrety face seems expressive only when Laura is acting supercilious or spiteful. Even her dimples give you the willies.
Given her personality, the idea that Laura's better nature might be corrupted by the hypocrisies of Ladies' School is difficult to enterain. She fluctuates from greenhorn to braggart to toady to teacher's pet, but the fluctuations are not illuminating.
I had the strangest feeling that Laura was destined to grow up into Mrs. Danvers in "Rebecca." This apprehension was reinforced by her spell as a teacher's pet. A dangling subplot finds friendless Laura being befriended by a young instructor named Evelyn (Hilary Ryan, looking as serenely beautiful as Lesley-Anne Down in "Upstairs, Downstairs"). She even becomes Evelyn's roommate, a curious privilege, evidently allowed because Evelyn's parents are wealthy.
When Laura enters her new digs, Evelyn is shot with a slightly distorted lens that suggests a spider waiting at the center of her web. (The idea seems ill-conceived, in part because it's Laura who has the spidery personality.) Evelyn is also full of flirty compliments and other provocations, but there's nothing erotically conclusive about her gestures. Dropping humid hints but neglecting explicit verification, Beresford invites us to jump to conclusions he doesn't have the nerve to verify. For all one knows, he's just overstimulating himself.
"My Brilliant Career" had its unresolved aspects too, but they surfaced in a likable context. The director also seemed to observed characters of every social class with a sympathetic interest and understanding.
"The Getting of Wisdom" keeps everything at a stilted, nasty distance.Far from feeling that the past is being imaginatively recaptured, you feel as if it's being deliberately, defensively rejected.