The Umbrella Woman

(aka The Good Wife and Peter Kenna's The Umbrella Woman, Ken Cameron, Australia, 1987)


In an important essay on "Personal Relationships and Sexuality" (in The New Australian Cinema, 1980), Meaghan Morris commented:

Australian cinema could scarcely be accused of promoting the virtues of life-long love and marriage. There is little or no glorification of full-blown romantic love, for example, and none of the heightened respect for the eternal drama of the couple that defines the themes of so much European and American cinema. Instead, there is a fascination with group behaviour, and with relationships seen in the context of social institutions.

There is no grimmer or more salutary demonstration of this prevalent dramatic attitude than The Umbrella Woman, written by noted Australian author Peter Kenna.

It is a widely misunderstood and underrated film. Perhaps its makers started out consciously with the humanist piety to which David Stratton (in his survey The Avocado Plantation) reduces it: "Even if you find out what you want most in life, you cannot always get it". Yet this story of the unquenchably frustrated Marge (Rachel Ward) pursuing a number of disastrous relationships with a succession of variously unsatisfying men (husband Bryan Brown, his brother Steven Vidler and erotic vagabond Sam Neill) paints a much darker, because utterly social, picture of the relations that pertain between men and women.

Christina Thompson (in Cinema Papers) equally misconstrues the film from a feminist-influenced position when she criticises it as regressively advocating women's acceptance of their lot in the marital home. For, as in the comparable film melodrama Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948) – to borrow Geoffrey Nowell-Smith's assessment – "all the problems [are] laid out in their poignancy, and none of them resolved".

The film rigorously traces the social conditions that constrain, stultify and pervert this woman's sexual and romantic drives. From the opening crosscut montage, society is shown as completely segregated according to gender: Ward performs as solitary mid-wife whilst Brown fells trees and engages in hostile camaraderie with his mates. Corresponding to the available conformist gender roles are starkly circumscribed social spaces, such as the 'Ladies Parlour' in the local pub.

In the no-less socialised internal or psychological landscape of the characters, the woman is always cast in an impossible position: to her husband she must be a good, obedient wife; to his brother a selfless sexual tutor; to the vagrant misogynist, an unsentimental whore. Even Marge finds herself disgusted by the unladylike, openly libidinal behaviour of her mother. After leaving her husband, experiencing brutally rejection from her lover, and dragging herself back to home and her supposedly proper role, Marge is of course left, in the final shots, still longing hopelessly for release.

In The Imaginary Industry, Elizabeth Jacka yokes the film to her (and Susan Dermody's) polemic against the so-called AFC (Australian Film Commission) genre, citing it as a late, hangover example of a project "rendered bland, flat and unconvincing" by the conventions of this form, in which "the filmmakers opt for a literal AFC-genre style of attack".

However – quite apart from any querying of the very category of the AFC genre – this account of the film is hard to sustain. A typical scene, inter-cutting one of Neill's casual sex encounters with Ward's lonely, dreamy gaze (as if she were seeing, or even conjuring the former), is anything but literal. Cameron's direction throughout is heightened and intense, suffused with the complex drives that are the film's subject.

The Umbrella Woman does not deserve its composite reputation as a conservative, conventional, bland costume drama in the style of some Australian films of the '70s. Rather, it is a corrosive, despairing, highly materialist portrayal of certain values underlying Australian life.

MORE Cameron: Fast Talking

© Adrian Martin May 1991

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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