Great Aussie Female Movie Characters

March 8, 2019
In honour of International Women’s Day 2019, here’s a handful of the best Australian female movie characters to ever grace a cinema screen.

LAURA TWEEDLE RAMBOTHAM (SUSANNAH FOWLE) IN THE GETTING OF WISDOM

Set within the rigorous confines of a posher-than-thou girls’ boarding school at the turn of the century, 1978’s The Getting Of Wisdom – directed with delicate but tough minded flair by Bruce Beresford, and based on Henry Handel Richardson’s (the pseudonym of Ethel Richardson) novel – follows the trials and tribulations of poor-born schoolgirl Laura Tweedle Rambotham (Susannah Fowle), one of the most idiosyncratic and unforgettable female characters in Australian film. “The film is about an ugly duckling,” says producer Phillip Adams in the documentary, Telling Schoolgirl Tales. “It can’t be played by a beautiful young woman…it just can’t. It’s got to be played by an interesting young woman.” Debut actress Susannah Fowle was exactly that, and though she would not go on to any great heights as an actress career-wise, she is absolutely brilliant as the headstrong, wonderfully eccentric Laura Tweedle Rambotham. “I liked the way that she doesn’t try to make herself likeable,” says co-star John Waters. “Bruce was absolutely right to give the part to Susannah, a first time actress who really threw her heart and soul into it, and gave an accurate, well cadenced performance,” says Adams.

Right from her first day, Laura clashes with the school’s catty rich girls, and has to find her own inner resolve. Whether it’s her plain features, academic superiority or garish, homemade outfits, Laura is a resolute outsider totally at odds with the casual silken splendour of the rich girls (led by a particularly bitchy Sigrid Thornton) who mock her at every turn. In a desperate grab for acceptance, Laura spins the tall tale that she’s having an affair with the handsome but distant Reverend Shepherd (John Waters), who ultimately turns out to be a boring, self-centred dullard. With her ruse discovered, Laura is even further on the outs, but finds solace with Evelyn Souttar (Hilary Ryan), a refined but unusual senior student. Laura starts to fall in love with the beautifully transfixing Evelyn, who is soon driven away by the younger student’s desperation and over dependence.

While the picture painted here of female adolescence is particularly harsh – complete with lying, cheating, cruelty, broken hearts and torn allegiances – the film’s ending is a surprisingly positive (though bittersweet) one. While Laura’s social skills have gotten her nowhere, her intelligence sees her scoop the pool at the school’s end-of-year awards ceremony. But as the film closes with the indelible image of Laura simply running off into the distance toward an uncertain future, it’s clear that most of her spirit and individuality have remained intact despite the emotional beating she has received. Slightly bowed but far from broken, Laura Tweedle Rambotham is the ultimate Australian underdog.

MIRANDA (ANNE-LOUISE LAMBERT) IN PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK

“Films like that were incredibly rare,” says Anne-Louise Lambert. “These were the days of Alvin Purple, so to get a part where you didn’t have to just wiggle your tits was great. It always felt very special, but none of us could have ever realised how special it was going to become in historical terms.”

The Australian classic Picnic At Hanging Rock was met with uniform raves from critics, and screened at a number of festivals around the world. At a time when the “cultural cringe” was digging in tight, Picnic At Hanging Rock proved that an artful, intelligent, beautifully composed film could be made in Australia. Director Peter Weir’s control over his material was stunning, and the film remains absolutely essential. On St. Valentine’s Day in 1900, a group of boarding school girls go on a picnic to Hanging Rock, an extraordinary, eerie volcanic formation on the slopes of Mount Macedon, on the edge of the Victorian bush. When a smaller group of girls go into the rock to explore, they simply, without warning, vanish. One of the girls is found wandering in a dazed state a week later, but remembers nothing. After that, everyone involved with the boarding school and the girls’ disappearance starts to crumble: be it physically, financially, emotionally or spiritually.

Though the film’s look and haunting feel are its most famous elements, one of its most vital and unforgettable facets is its leading character, the angelic and piercingly beautiful Miranda, perhaps the most gloriously idealised schoolgirl in Australian history. For nineteen-year-old actress Anne-Louise Lambert, it meant instant icon status. The image of the ethereal Miranda, all serenity and billowing white cotton, heading off into the crevices of Hanging Rock to a fate charged with mystery, has become truly indelible. “The thing about icons is that they don’t change,” Lambert tells FilmInk. “Miranda is ever unchanging, always turning around to say goodbye in front of the rock. I’m still surprised at the response Miranda calls up in people still. A couple of years ago, the film played in Poland for the first time, and suddenly I received a whole bunch of letters from people who were in some kind of time warp almost with regards to the film. They have the feeling that it’s only just happening, and that I’m still nineteen. You’re hearing their first reaction to this thing twenty years down the track. That’s always very interesting.”

The deeply romantic figure of Miranda has inspired much obsession over the years, but Anne-Louise Lambert puts it down to the deep, beautifully dark mystery that is Picnic At Hanging Rock. “I’ve had a lot of romantic responses to the film, I guess you could say,” she explains. “They’re mostly from young men who’ve fallen in love with Miranda, in a very idealised way. I can’t take full credit for it. It’s the film itself that endows Miranda with that quality.”

KATRINA SKINNER (EMILY BARCLAY) IN SUBURBAN MAYHEM

“I can’t recall a character like her,” says Suburban Mayhem director Paul Goldman. “You don’t know how far Katrina will go, but you do know that nothing is going to stop her. When I first read the script, I was shocked at how far the character would go. If Katrina was going to take a step back, it would only be to wind up even harder and kick your block off.”

In Goldman’s stylised, richly aggressive black comedy Suburban Mayhem, Katrina Skinner – as essayed with full force vigour by young New Zealand actress Emily Barclay – is a walking nightmare. She’s a nineteen-year-old single mother who wants the good life. Her beloved brother Danny (Laurence Breuls) is in prison for decapitating a convenience store employee, and her life is going absolutely nowhere. When her well-meaning father (Robert Morgan) threatens to cut her off financially and take away her child because of her, erm, unconventional parenting style, wild child Katrina cracks. She then sets in motion a plan of shocking callousness designed to get her exactly what she wants. Playing her nice guy boyfriend (Michael Dorman) and her brother’s dimwitted sidekick (Anthony Hayes) like finely tuned violins, Katrina soon has her father in her crosshairs.

Katrina is so shocking and so memorable because she is so resolutely self-absorbed – she wants everything and she wants it now. She doesn’t care who she has to corrupt or manipulate in order to get it, and once she’s rolling, she’s like a freight train that can’t be stopped. Barclay gets right under the character’s skin, embodying her physically and totally, and providing just a flicker of hurt behind the eyes that suggests that maybe, just maybe, Katrina does possess at least a streak of humanity. “I won’t hear from anyone that doesn’t see how good Emily is,” says Goldman. “This is a big, bold, fuck-you performance from a young actress who has declared that she is a big deal.”

Katrina’s amorality is admittedly even more shocking because she is, indeed, a woman. “I was completely aware of people’s concerns when writing Katrina,” says screenwriter Alice Bell. “So I gave her a baby to make it worse! The fact that people had such moral problems with Katrina’s behaviour just spurred me on to make her even more appalling. It was fun actually!”

The character remains a towering one in terms of Australian cinema, and actress Emily Barclay thinks that she knows why. “When you dig a little deeper, I think she’s one of those characters – if you’re totally honest with yourself – where there is probably a bit of Katrina in all of us. Everyone can behave like that sometimes, and the fact that she can do whatever she wants and gets away with it is kind of exciting.”

MURIEL HESLOP (TONI COLLETTE) IN MURIEL’S WEDDING

“When I lived in Porpoise Spit, I used to sit in my room for hours and listen to Abba songs. But since I’ve moved to Sydney, I haven’t listened to one Abba song. That’s because my life is as good as an Abba song. It’s as good as ‘Dancing Queen’.”

Awkward, desperate to be loved, confused and sweet-beyond-belief, Muriel Heslop (Toni Collette) is the ultimate ugly duckling. The sad, frumpy daughter of Bill Heslop (Bill Hunter), a major player in the small coastal town of Porpoise Spit, Muriel dreams of getting out of her sunny, glittery but dead-end hometown, where her bitchy “friends” treat her like an unwanted hanger-on and her family tags her a useless no-hoper. Nobody cuts Muriel any slack: when she catches the bouquet at a wedding, her friends slap her down straight away. “Throw it again,” they moan. “You’ll never get married.” But when she takes advantage of an accidental blank cheque courtesy of her parents (leading to her sister’s now famous smirk of, “You’re terrible, Muriel”), Muriel turns her life around, eventually moving to Sydney after reuniting with a confident, affirming school friend (Rachel Griffiths), and then getting caught up in a marriage of convenience with a South African swimmer (Daniel Lapaine). Once obsessed with weddings and being married, Muriel soon sees the hollowness of her dreams, and starts to live her life realistically. As funny as she is heartbreaking, Muriel Heslop – as so winningly created by writer/director P.J Hogan – is a true cinematic dichotomy: she’s larger than life but painfully recognisable at the same time.

This was the role that launched Toni Collette to Australian and then international stardom, and she is utterly brilliant, capturing all of Muriel’s quirks with creative zeal. “It did seem predestined in a way,” Collette said of the role on Andrew Denton’s Enough Rope. “When I was making the decision to leave NIDA, my agent and very good friend Ann Churchill-Brown told me about this script. It hadn’t been financed yet, but she thought I was perfect for it, and that was the end of that. I was concerned. I ended up leaving the play I was doing, and thinking, ‘Well, life goes on and we’ll see what happens.’ And pretty much a year later, I remember thinking about what she’d said and calling her up, and she was like, ‘Oh, that’s really weird. They’ve just called and they’ve got the money and it’s happening.’ Usually when an actor goes in for an audition, the agent will suggest ten or fifteen actors for a part, but my agent just wrote ‘Toni Collette’. So she put it out there that she had complete belief in me doing it.”

That sense of belief truly paid off…

DEBBIE VICKERS (NELL SCHOFIELD) & SUE KNIGHT (JAD CAPELJA) IN PUBERTY BLUES

Tough, funny, and unforgettable, the Aussie teen classic, Puberty Blues (the inspiration for the popular TV series), is set around the beaches of Sydney’s Cronulla in the early eighties – an often cruel landscape home to drugs, booze, teen sex, and fierce territorialism. Directed with unflinching honesty by Bruce Beresford (working from the book by teenage authors, Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey), the film finds it centre in sixteen-year-old schoolgirls, Debbie Vickers and Sue Knight (played with sass and sensitivity by then-newcomers, Nell Schofield and Jad Capelja), who are bristling under the heavy brand of sexism doled out by the boys that they kick around with (to put it mildly, these lads are basically a bunch of dead-shits, all mired in machismo, casual drug abuse, and their own superstar surfer status), and the dual oppression of school and parents. Much like later Hollywood teen flicks such as Mean Girls and Pretty In Pink, the narrative and thematic thrust of Puberty Blues is the girls’ initial desperation to hook into the “in-crowd.” But with a strong feminist kick, Debbie and Sue ultimately realise that they’re their own in-crowd, and soon strike out on their own terms.

“She was a bit more full tilt than I was at that time, but her feistiness and determination to bust into those male dominated arenas struck a big chord with me,” Nell Schofield – who today has a successful career as a journalist, film reviewer and television presenter – tells FilmInk of her character, Debbie Vickers. Puberty Blues was a happy experience for Schofield, who was surrounded by like-minded young performers. “It was great fun,” she says. “It was very supportive. Jad Capelja [a vibrantly talented acting debutante who, apart from a leading role in the little-seen 1982 youth flick Freedom, disappeared from view after Puberty Blues, and sadly committed suicide in 2010 after a long battle with mental illness] and I hit it off immediately, and kept in touch for some years after the shoot.”

Believable and relatable, Debbie and Sue are also unlikely feminist icons. Sick of warming the towels while the boys rule the surf, the girls buy their own surfboard, wade into the ocean, and learn to ride their own waves. Within the male dominated surf culture, it’s an act of pioneering feminism, and a classic middle-finger salute. It’s also one of the most memorable endings in Australian cinema history, and a richly satisfying capper to one of its best films.

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