Bruce Beresford Bildungsroman Bonanza: The Getting of Wisdom (1977) and Mao’s Last Dancer (2009)

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Director: Bruce Beresford

Stars: Susannah Fowle, Sheila Helpmann, Patricia Kennedy, Candy Raymond, Hilary Ryan, Barry Humphries, John Waters, Sigrid Thornton, Kerry Armstrong, Julia Blake

At the time of The Getting of Wisdom’s release, Bruce Beresford was best known for directing muscular, rowdy entertainments like The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, Barry McKenzie Holds His Own, and Don’s Party. The latter film, adapting to the screen a play by Australia’s premier playwright David Williamson, was a step towards respectability for Beresford after his near professional ostracization following the Barry McKenzie films, and he was awarded a 1977 Best Director AFI Award for his efforts. The Getting of Wisdom seems an even more decisive step towards respectability, courting association with the dominant commercial aesthetics of the Australian New Wave: indeed, with its period setting, girls boarding school location, and literary origins (based on Henry Handel Richardson’s 1910 novel), it’s immediately evocative in its surface details of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, released two years earlier and likewise set in Victoria at the tail end of Queen Victoria’s reign. However, The Getting of Wisdom’s a lighter yet more full-bodied blend than Weir’s artful, enigmatic melodrama. And while its focus on a young woman protagonist and feminine milieu outwardly suggests a significant departure from his earlier work, in its focus on culture clash the film is consistent with not only Beresford’s prior films but also subsequent ones like Breaker Morant and The Club.

Wisdom title card

From her arrival at an exclusive girls boarding school in Melbourne, Laura Tweedle Rambotham (Susannah Fowle) sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb: she’s oddly dressed, country-reared, shorter in stature and more awkward than her catty and affluent peers. With her individualist personality and artistic temperament, Laura struggles to fit into the regimented institution and its elitist cliques, but finds her footing over the course of the film. The title of the film is somewhat ironic and refreshingly fluid in its definition of wisdom: Laura matures, but lies, cheats, gloats, conforms, and hurts others along the way. In other words, she gains wisdom, but it’s a bit of a wash.

In his published journals Josh Hartnett definitely wants to do this… True stories from a life in the screen trade, director Beresford rates Breaker Morant, Tender Mercies, Driving Miss Daisy, and Black Robe as his best films, but professes a soft spot for The Getting of Wisdom (p. 58). It’s a well-deserved soft spot, and as intimated above, The Getting of Wisdom is an earthier, funnier affair than its decorous exterior and heritage film patina suggest, with the filmmakers milking fish out of water comedy from Laura’s fumbling transition into her new environment and subsequent, more mercenary pursuits. There’s shared DNA between the film and other Australian films about adolescents and their schooldays experiences; not only the aforementioned Picnic at Hanging Rock, but also The Devil’s Playground (a more earnest male variant on The Getting of Wisdom set in a Catholic seminary), Looking for Alibrandi (a contemporary take on class and culture clash centred on another outsider protagonist at an elite school), and Puberty Blues (another Beresford adaptation of another Australian fiction staple, updating the themes explored in The Getting of Wisdom to modern beach culture).

The Getting of Wisdom also shares some DNA with My Brilliant Career, both film and book, and those familiar with that story – set in the same era and published 10 years before The Getting of Wisdom, but filmed two years later – will recognise some of its protagonist Sybylla’s traits in Laura, who’s similarly whip-smart and idiosyncratic. But the younger Laura is also (mostly) more moderate in temperament, craves acceptance and affirmation, and is willing to compromise her ideals somewhat to attain them. Susannah Fowle delivers an authentic performance in the role, capturing some of the precociousness, vehemence, and quixotic conviction of adolescents in general and Laura in particular. While Beresford was seemingly going respectable with the film, he brought along some of his Barry McKenzie allies, including Barry Humphries, delivering a suitably mannered performance as the school’s principal. The ranks of staff and students are filled out with both recognisable faces (e.g. Sigrid Thornton, Kerry Armstrong) and unknown ones who do nice work across the board, and John Waters is fun as a dishy but cantankerous pastor. The film is as polished and burnished as the best of the Australian New Wave’s heritage film cycle – cinematographer Don McAlpine and costume designer Anna Senior also worked their magic on My Brilliant Career, while production designer John Stoddart later worked on Careful, He Might Hear You – but also serves as a reminder that those classic period films, branded with faintly damning praise by Pauline Kael for their “Seal of Good Housekeeping” and being “safe to take a girl on a date to”,  could be slyer and more playful than their embroidered surfaces suggest…

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Director: Bruce Beresford

Stars: Chi Cao, Bruce Greenwood, Amanda Schull, Kyle MacLachlan, Joan Chen, Jack Thompson

Mao’s Last Dancer, produced over 30 years after The Getting of Wisdom, is another period-set coming of age film, albeit featuring a male protagonist, unfolding across a larger canvas, and based on true events. Set mainly in the 1970s and 80s, the film centres on Li Cunxin (played at various ages by Wen Bin Huang, Chengwu Guo, and predominantly Chi Cao), who was recruited at age eleven to learn and dance ballet for communist China. American dance luminary Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood) takes a liking to the dancer, now a young man, on a visit to China and invites Li to Houston to study with his company for a season. The first half of the film alternates between Lee’s training in communist China in the 1970s and experiences in capitalist America in the 1980s, culminating in his painful defection from country and family. The second half chronicles Li’s subsequent struggles and triumphs.

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I’ve talked from time to time about Australian-international co-productions. Noteworthy recent films that fall into this category include Hacksaw Ridge, The Great Gatsby, and Mad Max: Fury Road: films by Australian filmmakers made in Australia and/or with significant Australian resourcing and funding. These films expand the parameters of what constitutes an Australian film, but often contain minimal outwardly Australian content. Bruce Beresford has made a couple of these films, Black Robe and Paradise Road, but Mao’s Last Dancer is a curious case: its funding was completely Australian and so were its key creatives – Beresford, producer Jane Scott, and writer Jan Sardi (adapting Cunxin’s memoirs) – but its subject matter is foreign (although its ‘subject’, Li, now resides in Australia) and the drama transpires entirely in China and the US (though some of the film was shot in Sydney). The film was not a blockbuster of The Great Gatsby or Fury Road proportions, but it was a success and currently ranks 18th on the list of the most successful Australian films at the local box office (albeit not quite profitable enough theatrically to recoup its outlay).

Early stretches of the film contrasting Li’s impoverished upbringing & harsh training in communist China and his more liberated experiences as a visitor to America evoke Oliver Stone’s Heaven and Earth and its similar scenes depicting an Asian immigrant’s initial immersion into American excess. But Beresford’s touch is altogether lighter than Stone’s, much to the film’s benefit. There’s much in the film’s drama and politics that a heavy-handed or unsubtle filmmaker could sink their teeth into, in turn sinking the film. But Mao’s Last Dancer avoids the temptation of caricature and the trap of unnecessary preaching, instead letting the material and human drama speak for itself. Beresford’s direction is classical and unshowy, and he elucidates a solid performance from Cao, tasked with the difficult demands of both dancing and acting, as well as sympathetic supporting turns from Greenwood, Kyle MacLachlan as Li’s lawyer, and Amanda Schull as his first American wife. The staging of the film’s ballet performances is also impressive. I’ve written previously about the clarity, geography, and storytelling in the football set pieces in Beresford’s The Club, and the ballet scenes here possess similar qualities. Shot predominantly from the theatre audience’s vantage point in long and medium-to-long shots, both the balletic athleticism of the dancers and the moving parts of the surrounding theatrical mis en scene are captured, and I suspect Beresford’s own experiences directing opera figure in here, with the sequences combining both a stage director’s eye for filling the proscenium arch and a film director’s eye for capturing key action and motion.

Mao’s Last Dancer’s depiction of Li’s initiation into a wider world provides an international variant on Laura’s rites of passage in The Getting of Wisdom, and also serves as a fitting bookend to its director’s own professional arc since The Getting of Wisdom. Like Li, director Beresford went from promising local talent to internationally respected artist in the space between these two films, helming both Oscar winning (Driving Miss Daisy) and nominated (Tender Mercies) films as well as a smattering of humbling critical and/or commercial duds. As an entirely locally funded film with international subject matter, Mao’s Last Dancer is both a homecoming tale and a story and product of global artistry. It’s quietly compelling work from an assured filmmaking hand.

Next time: Down Under Flix rings in the holiday season and sends off 2017 with Bush Christmas (1983).

Author: downunderflix

This site was created by Ben Kooyman, a teacher and writer based in Sydney, Australia hoping to shine some light on some neglected local films...

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