9 November 2001 | petershelleyau
wisdom from opportunity
This film directed by Bruce Beresford is like the underbelly of fellow Australian Peter Weir's 1975 Picnic at Hanging Rock, also set in a turn of the century ladies college, but while Weir's title is all romantic lyricism, Beresford goes for lowbrow comedy. Beresford's out to show how schoolgirls are just as cruel as schoolboys by placing a fish-out-of-water into their "well-bred" environment. Of course, it's no surprise that the impoverished heroine Laura is far more civilised than the other girls. That is, until she learns that the "wisdom" to be got is being an opportunist. Pauline Kael put it best when she wrote "what she learns is the principle of contagion - that you get close to the powerful, so that their power can rub off on you, and stay clear of the helpless and weak, so their failure won't infect you". Such is the rewards of finishing schools. Beresford even gives us a freeze-frame close-up of Laura with over-bite begging for acceptance. He isn't interested in presenting these girls as beautiful or sensuous, and deliberately shows their facial pimples and awkward bodies. Even the suggestion of lesbianism in Laura's relationships with 2 girls are diffused by making one fat and expelled (for stealing from the others to buy a ring for Laura), and the other a rich older student, who cradles Laura in bed like a mother. The female staff are also grotesques - Sheila Helpmann as the schoolmistress wears an unwavering look of disdain, though when she drops it at Laura's graduation, we get a laugh, and Beresford undercuts the sight of floating black swans that Laura feeds by having them bleet loudly. The film works the best with Beresford's use of Laura's piano playing, when he edits to his comic routines, but he unfortunately indulges Barry Humphries as the school's minister in a long monologue where he denounces the thieving friend.