May 2011

Arts & Letters

‘Mrs Carey’s Concert’ by Bob Connolly and Sophie Raymond

By Anna Goldsworthy
'Mrs Carey’s Concert', By Bob Connolly and Sophie Raymond (directors), In national release

Mrs Carey’s Concert, a new documentary by Bob Connolly (of Rats in the Ranks and Facing the Music) and Sophie Raymond, offers a familiar narrative archetype: it’ll be all right on the night. It is a type of triumph over adversity set on the concert stage, which informs Hungarian director István Szabó’s Meeting Venus (1991), as well as the lives of most musicians, some of the time. When we come across it at the movies, we know it can only end well but this in no way detracts from this lovely film.

The concert in question is Methodist Ladies’ College’s biennial performance at the Sydney Opera House, which involves the entire school community. After her own conversion to music by Bach’s St Matthew Passion, music director Mrs Carey became a proselytiser for music: “I think music’s a fundamental part of what education should be. It’s intellectual … it’s an emotional pursuit, it’s a physical pursuit, it nourishes your soul. It’s also teaching them courage, it’s teaching them how to communicate.” The film tracks the progress of Emily Sun, a gifted violinist, as she moves from alleged graffitist to radiant performer. Other members of the school community are less grateful for the opportunity. Generally, they humour their teachers with an adolescent’s noblesse oblige. “Make me blush with the passion!” calls out a conductor to a room of raised eyebrows.

But 16-year-old Iris Shi is a conscientious objector, and the story’s chief villain. At first I felt a little sorry for her but it is a role she clearly relishes. “I can shut down my teachers that easily,” she says, and laughs like a criminal mastermind. In a scene that is both comic and heartbreaking, Mrs Carey launches into an eloquent plea for music, for the joys of teamwork, for the great value of this opportunity. Iris casts around for rebuttal and then suddenly finds it: “The thing is, like, you know— there’s a difference between having the opportunity and seizing it, than— you know, having an opportunity and forcing it upon someone else.”

I had been barracking for Mrs Carey but this stopped me in my tracks. What if free-thinking, ungrateful Iris has a point? Why should our children thank us for privileges they do not want? Mrs Carey is also shaken: “Why am I spending hour after hour on these kids if that really is the sum of it?” She revives herself with a bracing dose of the St Matthew Passion, reminding herself that “it’s only Iris.”

At the Opera House on concert night, Mrs Carey sports a coiffed Margaret Thatcher hairdo, as excited girls dart in and out of dressing rooms. They play like angels, of course; even Iris sings along, or at least lip-synchs. Mrs Carey is vindicated in every way; it is a relief that Iris is wrong, that these girls are enormously privileged. But the film’s eloquent message is that the privilege lies not in the Sydney Opera House, nor in the (beautifully shot) avenues of MLC – it lies instead in having teachers such as these.

Anna Goldsworthy

Anna Goldsworthy is a writer and pianist. She is director of the cultural policy program at the Stretton Institute and director of the J.M.Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice at the University of Adelaide.

From the front page

Image of Anthony Albanese

How to be a prime minister

The task ahead for Anthony Albanese in restoring the idea that governments should seek to make the country better

Image of the Kiama Blowhole, New South Wales

The edge of their seats

Lessons from Gilmore, Australia’s most marginal electorate

Image of Peter Dutton and Sussan Ley

The future of the Liberal Party

Peter Dutton doesn’t just have a talent problem on his hands

Image of Australian Army Cadets on parade. Image via Alamy

Ghosts in the war machine

Does the military attract violent misanthropists, or are they forged in murky theatres of war?

In This Issue

Manning Clark with his image, as sculpted by Ninon Geier, c. 1985. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

A grand history

Mark McKenna’s ‘An Eye for Eternity’

A tempting prospect, the Milford Track. © Richard Hamilton Smith/Corbis

The sound of silence

Hiking the Milford Track, New Zealand

Lindsay Tanner at the despatch box, 25 May 2010. © Alan Porrit / AAP Image

Too much information

Lindsay Tanner’s ‘Sideshow’

Katsushika Hokusai, 'Under the Wave off Kanagawa', c. 1830. © Corbis

The work of catfish

Reflections on Japan


More in Arts & Letters

Image of Fonofono o le nuanua: Patches of the rainbow (After Gauguin), 2020. Image courtesy of Yuki Kihara and Milford Galleries, Aotearoa New Zealand

The dream machine: The 59th Venice Biennale

Curator Cecilia Alemani’s long overdue Biennale overwhelmingly features female artists and champions indigenous voices and other minorities

Image of Daniel Boyd, ‘Untitled (TBOMB)’, 2020

Mission statement: Daniel Boyd’s ‘Treasure Island’

An AGNSW exhibition traces the development of the Indigenous artist’s idiosyncratic technique, which questions ideas of perception

Image of Bundanon

Shades of grey: Kerstin Thompson Architects

The lauded Melbourne-based architectural firm showcase a rare ability to sensitively mediate between the old and the new

Still from ‘Men’

Fear as folk: ‘Men’

Writer/director Alex Garland’s latest film is an unsubtle but ambitious pastoral horror, mixing the Christian with the classical


More in Noted

Still from ‘Irma Vep’

‘Irma Vep’

Olivier Assayas revisits his 1996 film in a delicious palindromic limited series, in which a frazzled director remakes his ‘Irma Vep’ film into a TV series

Cover of ‘Trust’

‘Trust’

The American novelist Hernan Diaz audits the silence of great wealth in a story of four parts presented as novel, autobiography, memoir and diary

Cover image of Louise Kennedy’s ‘Trespasses’

‘Trespasses’

The powerful debut novel from Irish author Louise Kennedy is a masterclass in emotional compression

Cover image of Paul Dalla Rosa’s ‘An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life’

‘An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life’

Alienations and fantasies of escape unify the stories in Australian author Paul Dalla Rosa’s debut collection


Online exclusives

Image of Australian Army Cadets on parade. Image via Alamy

Ghosts in the war machine

Does the military attract violent misanthropists, or are they forged in murky theatres of war?

Composite image showing John Hughes (image via Giramondo Publishing) and the cover of his novel The Dogs (Upswell Publishing)

A dog’s breakfast

Notes on John Hughes’s plagiarism scandal

Image of Erin Doherty as Becky Green in Chloe. Image supplied

App trap: ‘Chloe’

‘Sex Education’ writer Alice Seabright’s new psychological thriller probing social media leads this month’s streaming highlights

Pablo Picasso, Figures by the sea (Figures au bord de la mer), January 12, 1931, oil on canvas, 130.0 × 195.0 cm, Musée national Picasso-Paris. © Succession Picasso/Copyright Agency, 2022. Photo: © RMN - Grand Palais - Mathieu Rabeau

‘The Picasso Century’ at the NGV

The NGV’s exhibition offers a fascinating history of the avant-garde across the Spanish artist’s lifetime