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.

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Careful, He Might Hear You (1983)

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Director: Carl Schultz

Stars: Wendy Hughes, Robyn Nevin, Nicholas Gledhill, John Hargreaves, Peter Whitford

Last week one of the weaker Australian films of 1983, Phillipe Mora’s The Return of Captain Invincible, was spotlighted here on Down Under Flix. This week’s spotlight falls on one of the best local releases of 1983, Carl Schultz’s Careful, He Might Hear You, based on a novel by Sumner Locke Elliott. The film’s critical status is evidenced by its sweeping of that year’s Australian Film Institute Awards, where it won 8 gongs out of 13 nominations, including awards for Best Film, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actress for Wendy Hughes (one year after her nominated work in the superb Lonely Hearts), and Supporting Actor for John Hargreaves (two years after his nominated work in Hoodwink), against impressive competition from The Year of Living DangerouslyMan of Flowers, and Phar Lap. But I’m not sure Schultz’s film has persisted in the public consciousness as strongly as those others have, bolstered as they are by the auteur credentials of Peter Weir and Paul Cox, the star power of Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver, and the national iconography of the thoroughbred hero of the nation.

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Kriv Stenders double feature: The Illustrated Family Doctor (2005), Lucky Country (2009)

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In a recent interview with The Age, director Kriv Stenders characterises his ability to continue working as a marker of success. He’s not wrong. Sift through the back catalogue of films covered on Down Under Flix and you’ll find an abundance of directors who debuted and bowed out with a single film (e.g. Dating the Enemy’s Megan Simpson Huberman, Beyond Innocence’s Scott Murray, Bondi Tsunami’s Rachael Lucas) or who struggled to generate output following earlier successes. Stenders remains productive and prolific, with a new film, Australia Day, on this year’s festival circuit and a television remake of Wake in Fright in the works. He’s also found a measure of mainstream success with his Red Dog films. The first, 2011’s Red Dog, is a modern family classic, a spunky, funny tearjerker and one of the best local films of the 21st century. Its follow-up, 2016’s Red Dog: True Blue, got a lukewarm reception but it’s a nice old school Australian bildungsroman with a light touch and a canine co-star in the Storm Boy/Blue Fin tradition. The films that launched Stenders’ career, however, are very different animals.

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Aussiewood: Mister Johnson (1990)

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Director: Bruce Beresford

Stars: Maynard Eziashi, Pierce Brosnan, Beatie Edney, Edward Woodward

First viewing, via DVD

My admiration and fondness for Bruce Beresford’s work is well-documented: see my previous reviews of such diverse fare as the excellent The Fringe Dwellers, the entertaining The Club, the red-headed larrikin stepchild Barry McKenzie Holds His Own, and the decidedly mixed bag of American films that is King David, Crimes of the Heart, and Last Dance. Beresford has done stronger work overseas than those three median efforts; indeed, based on the one-two-three punch of 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy, 1990’s Mister Johnson, and 1991’s Black Robe, Beresford should be heralded as one of the finest working directors of that period. As it stands, Driving Miss Daisy reaped all the glory (and the inevitable post-awards backlash) and Black Robe’s reputation has blossomed steadily over time, but Mister Johnson was and remains virtually unknown. Beresford himself notes that it was “the best reviewed film I ever made by far, and seen by no-one” (There’s a Fax from Bruce, p. 166).

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Nadia Tass double bill: The Big Steal (1990) and Mr Reliable (1996)

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Director: Nadia Tass

Stars: Ben Mendelsohn, Claudia Karvan, Steve Bisley, Marshall Napier, Maggie King, Damon Herriman, Angelo D’Angelo

First viewing, via DVD

As someone who doesn’t own a car, I’m fairly oblivious when it comes to cars and car culture. Even so, anyone who’s ever watched a handful of teen movies will recognise the prominent role of cars and the social cachets and personal freedoms they bestow in rites-of-passage films, from Rebel Without a Cause to American Graffiti to Grease to Dazed and Confused and beyond. Even the first act of Transformers hinges largely around protagonist Sam Witwicky’s (Shia LaBeouf) bond with his new car, before switching priorities to pyrotechnics and robots thwacking each other about.

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Aussiewood: The Portrait of a Lady (1996)

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Director: Jane Campion

Stars: Nicole Kidman, John Malkovich, Barbara Hershey, Martin Donovan, Viggo Mortensen, Shelley Winters, Shelley Duvall, Richard E. Grant

Second viewing, via DVD

The Portrait of a Lady opens with voiceover of modern liberated women (with predominantly Antipodean accents) talking about kissing. A montage follows during the film’s opening credits, showing contemporary women of different cultural backgrounds lying in a circle, dancing, staring into camera, and so on. The film then cuts to Nicole Kidman—as the film’s heroine Isabel Archer—in 1870s England, dressed in period garb, frizzy hair severely curtailed, and hiding away following an unwanted marriage proposal. The film’s opening minutes nicely encapsulate Campion’s interest—an interest that pervades her filmography— in women both past and present, their spirits and agency, and attempts to domesticate and discipline them by various, frequently patriarchal entities.

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Manganinnie (1980) and Blackfellas (1993)

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Director: John Honey

Stars: Mawuyul Yanthalawuy, Anna Ralph, Phillip Hinton, Elaine Mangan

First viewing, via DVD

When Down Under Flix surveyed readers on their Australian film viewing habits last year, 1980’s Manganinnie was the least seen film about Indigenous Australians (98%) and tied with 2003’s Subterano (also 98%) as the least seen film of the survey. But where sci-fi chiller Subterano arguably never made a dent in the first place, Manganinnie was the first production (of just two, alas) of the Tasmanian Film Corporation, was nominated for five AFI Awards including Best Film, Director, and Actress, and made a modest profit. However, the film has been somewhat forgotten, dwarfed in the popular consciousness by other releases of its era such as My Brilliant Career, Mad Max, and Breaker Morant, films that are outwardly more stylish and accessible.

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