in Criterion Month

My Brilliant Career (1979)

With some prominent actors, you do end up asking the question “where did they come from?” This was something I often wondered with Judy Davis, though I suppose the literal answer to this question was of course “Australia”. She’s the kind of character actress that has always seemed like a bit of an odd fit for American films, though also seemed to be respected for reasons that weren’t obvious to me. However, all of these questions became abundantly clear after watching My Brilliant Career, a coming-of-age tale that saw Davis giving an effortlessly brilliant, career-making performance. Ugh, that felt a little too close to Gene Shalit territory (sometimes Criterion Month feels longer than a month, my friends). Anyways, you could also say the film had a similar effect on the career of director Gillian Armstrong, another Aussie who has also had a long and interesting career that has often flirted with Hollywood.

My Brilliant Career is based on the 1901 novel of the same name, which was written by Miles Franklin (under a pseudonym to hide the fact that she was a woman) when she was just 16 years old. The novel deals with the realities of being an Australian teenager at the turn of the century, as its heroine Sybylla (played by Judy Davis) is born into a poor farming family, but is given the chance to work for and live with her wealthy grandmother. While this is certainly a step up from Sybylla’s mundane existence on the Australian frontier, her dreams of being a great musician or writer continue to outweigh her desire to be some mannered wife of high society.

While living at her grandmother’s estate, she becomes friends with a young man who lives in the area named Harry Beachom (a very handsome Sam Neill). Sybylla and Harry become closer and closer, while it becomes obvious that Harry intends to marry her. However, Sybylla repeatedly states that she doesn’t wish to marry, though the closest she comes to agreeing to matrimony is saying that she’ll marry him in two years after she’s figured out “what’s wrong with the world and what’s wrong with her”. Unfortunately, these two years don’t go as planned, as her parents force Sybylla to go work for this poverty-stricken family since her father owes them money. After she returns home, she meets up with Harry once again and once again refuses to give her hand in marriage as her literary career and a life of independence is more important to her.

Now, considering a recent adaptation came out recently, it’s hard not to see more than a bit of Little Women‘s Jo March in Sybylla. In fact, it’s an even more obvious comparison considering Gillian Armstrong would go on to direct the 1994 adaptation of Little Women. Though I think that just speaks to what a universal feeling it was to be woman in the 1800s and to be trapped by the idea that you could either be a married woman or a spinster doomed to eternal loneliness, and there was nothing in between. Also because these themes still have (unfortunate) relevance in regards to a woman’s place in society, Louisa May Alcott and Miles Franklin’s depictions of them are still well-suited for adaptation even decades later.

That said, I think this depiction of turn of the century Australian womanhood also works so well because Judy Davis is able to make Sybylla feel so alive and modern. Any period piece runs the risks of its characters disappearing into the costumes and set design, but Davis is always this spontaneous oddball who feels the constraints of her upper-class surroundings but can never quite fit into it. This also feels like an especially good story to set in Australia during this time period, since just in the film’s use of landscape and nature you get the sense of Western respectability trying to be forced upon this wilderness that can’t be contained.

Which brings me to the fact that it is kind of nuts that this is a debut feature. First because of the scope and the fact that it’s adapting a pretty well-known novel in Australia, but also because it’s quite visually impressive. Some of this has to do with the fact that Australia’s wild landscapes are used to great effect here, but a lot of it also has to do with eye of cinematographer Donald McAlpine, who like Davis and Armstrong would go on to work on many American films, which include classics like Predator and The Edge. Though above all, you’ve got to give credit to Gillian Armstrong for her similarly keen eye for character and her ability to turn what was an 80-year-old text into something that felt right at home with the other contemporary films coming out of Australia in the late ’70s.