[Film Review] My Brilliant Career (1979)

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Title: My Brilliant Career
Year: 1979
Country: Australia
Language: English
Genre: Biography, Drama, Romance
Director: Gillian Armstrong
Writer: Eleanor Witcombe
based on the novel of Miles Franklin
Music: Nathan Waks
Cinematography: Donald McAlpine
Cast:
Judy Davis
Sam Neill
Aileen Britton
Wendy Hughes
Robert Grubb
Patricia Kennedy
Peter Whitford
Julia Blake
Alan Hopgood
Carole Skinner
Max Cullen
David Franklin
Rating: 8.0/10

My Brilliant Career 1979.jpg

Adapted from Miles Franklin’s eponymous novel published in 1901, which was written while the author was still a teenager, MY BRILLIANT CAREER, Aussie director Gillian Armstrong’s feature debut made when she was 29, not only puts a young Judy Davis on the map as a formidable thespian, but also is immanent in effusing the story’s heartening feminist viewpoint, and with hindsight, it is an inviting, robust production orchestrated with sublime delicacy and forward-looking brio.

Our heroine Sybylla (Davis), a young girl living with her family in the outback in the late 19th century, is the eldest of the brood, she is an unruly force of nature who aspires to a life steeped in literature, music and art, which sounds detrimentally airy-fairy for her strapped parents, they float the idea of a domestic job to her, as a way to shuck off another mouth to feed, and it enrages her. So when her well-heeled matrilineal grandmother’s invitation arrives, it brings immense elation to her, maybe, finally she can be delivered from the sticks and all the menial labor.

Ensconced in a modestly plush rural estate, Sybylla has to stomach the affront that her plain looks are being openly addressed, often in front of her presence, a below-par trait doesn’t fall in with the family’s old money grandeur, and she is the ugly duckling, but swimming against the tide, she has no desperation/illusion to become a swan, she won’t bat an eyelid to an oleaginous suitor for whom she has no affection, and unthinkingly returns bold backchat to her stern grandma Mrs. Bossier (Britton) when marriage is propounded because she is nubile, she doesn’t want to get married, as later she confides to Harry Beecham (Neill), a childhood friend of gilded youth to whom she grows closer and vice versa, she must discover herself first, before even considering of becoming a part of someone else’s life. This isn’t exactly an earth-shattering idea of a woman’s liberation, but here, owing to Ms. Davis’ electrifying performance, Sybylla’s rite-of-passage shapes into a page-turner, implacable in its torrid mobility (a pillow fight with Harry in the lush garden is a shorthand of their youthful exuberance) and undertows (her pertness can be read as a coping mechanism countervailing her entrenched low self-esteem because of her unassuming appearance).

No one can negate there is love between Sybylla and Harry, but as she contests, why love must lead to marriage? There are alternatives, and she firmly stands her ground, especially after the stint as a governess to teach a bunch of illiterate children of a farmer family, she finds her vocation in words and literature, wherein she starts her brilliant career as a writer.

One of the most incredible merits of this Antipodean pastoral is that it doesn’t come off as cloying or priggish out of its constant-trodden story-line of a young woman’s unorthodox choice with regards to love, life and self-discovery. Around a pyrotechnic Judy Davis, whose glints of emotion are so sharp-edged and entrancing, the peripheral players are also cracking: a young Sam Neill is the projected prince charming but is also seethed with a farrago of contradictions and mix-feelings in mooning over a jolie-laide; Wendy Hughes is pretty radiant as the benign aunt Helen, whose caring nature doesn’t prevent her from giving one of the wisest nuptial advice: the best marriage is a friendship marriage. Aileen Britton and Patricia Kennedy (as Harry’s aunt Gussie), both hold sway with poise and majesty as two august dowagers, whereas the latter graces her comportment with conspiratorial discernment, the former carries more weight in her role as the high priest of tradition.

On the whole, MY BRILLIANT CAREER belongs to the high rung of period film-making and more extraordinarily, it is done with economy and Ms. Armstrong’s scrupulous attention to all the niceties, many kudos to this criminally undervalued female filmmaker.

Referential points: Gillian Armstrong’s LITTLE WOMEN (1994, 6.2/10), OSCAR AND LUCINDA (1997, 6.0/10)

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