Film & TV

Film Review: Marjorie Lawrence: The World at Her Feet

Operatic soprano Marjorie Lawrence went from country Victoria to the world’s stages. This documentary explores her life and incredible legacy.

In 1928 a young soprano from the tiny town of Winchelsea, Victoria, won the prestigious Sun Aria Award. She would go on to conquer the world opera stage, specializing in interpreting the notoriously challenging works of Richard Wagner. For several years she was the most famous Australian woman in the world. And yet in 2021, relatively few people remember her.

Film-makers Wayne Groom and Carolyn Bilsborow have sought to resurrect the legend that was Marjorie Lawrence, and return her to the operatic pantheon to which she so clearly belongs.

The World at Her Feet has been two years in the making, with Groom and Bilsborow working around travel restrictions and a dearth of archival footage. Despite these barriers, or possibly because of them, they have produced a documentary that is charming, fascinating, moving, funny, and totally respectful, without morphing into hagiography.

What little archival footage of Marjorie there is makes a huge impact, in particular her appearance on This is Your Life in the mid 50s. Luckily there is a significant amount of audio recordings, which are illustrated with stills of both the theatres, and Marjorie in costume. And what a glorious voice is it! Even with the crackling of the old recordings her intense, clear, almost faultless, soprano fills the screen.

This story is not just a simple one of rags-to-riches. Lawrence was struck down in her early 30s with polio, and was told she would never perform again. Of course, she went on to prove them wrong, and to also become a dedicated advocate for polio survivors, though which she became friends with the Roosevelts (President Roosevelt himself was a polio survivor).

A fascinating and eclectic group of people are interviewed on-screen, including conductor Brian Castles-Onion, music icon Richard Bonynge, Ita Buttrose, Wagner expert Miki Oikawa, and Richard Davis who wrote the biography Wotan’s Daughter, on which the film is based. And floating over the top of all this is the lyrical voice of Kiri Te Kanawa, but narrating , rather than singing. Te Kanawa’s enthusiasm for her subject is infectious, her enunciation perfect.

Groom and Bilsborow have once again put together a gripping, warm, and informative documentary which sits within a community. Marjorie’s home-town of Winchelsea was treated to a special screening of the film at the Globe Theatre, which her beloved father built.

The World at Her Feet is clearly a treat for opera-lovers, but will also delight anyone interested in the arts, a tale of personal adversity met head-on, lost Australian history, great women, and masterful documentary film-making.

You can read our interview with Wayne Groom and Carolyn Bilsborow here.

The World at Her Feet opens on December 16th

Gripping 4 stars

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