Tag: Gillian Armstrong

My Brilliant Career (1979)

My Brilliant Career (1979)

Edgy and very good feminist film about a prickly and difficult woman struggling against a lack of choice

Director: Gillian Armstrong

Cast: Judy Davis (Sybylla Melvyn), Sam Neill (Harry Beecham), Wendy Hughes (Aunt Helen), Robert Grubb (Frank Hawdon), Max Cullen (Peter McSwatt), Pat Kennedy (Aunt Gussie), Aileen Britton (Grandma Bossier), Peter Whitford (Uncle Julius)

In turn of the century Australia, it’s fair to say women were not awash with choices as Sybylla Melvyn (Judy Davis) discovers. Growing up on a dust covered farm, she dreams of becoming something – an artist, a singer, a writer, a connoisseur of culture, anything rather than spending her life as a wife and mother. She is dispatched by her parents to her wealthy maternal grandmother (Aileen Britton), determined to scrub her up, shave off her rough edges and find her a good marriage. Sybylla resists, but much to her surprise finds herself attracted to old childhood friend, Harry Beecham (Sam Neill). But will Sybylla choose marriage over finding her own path in life?

Adapted from a semi-autobiographical novel by Miles Franklin (the pen name of Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin), My Brilliant Career was a feminist watershed in Australian cinema, also one of the first Australian films directed by a woman. Gillian Armstrong was fascinated by a story that, while a period piece, still spoke strongly to a time when women were moving out of stereotypical traditional roles they had been pigeon-holed into. My Brilliant Career is a costume drama that looks at the stark reality for women at the time (wife, mother or “spinster”). And while men could dream of lives of cultural and artistic fulfilment or economic ambition, women faced innumerable barriers.

The frustrations help explain why Sybylla is such a prickly, at times maddening, frustrated woman trapped in a constant stream of situations where her choices are narrow or she cannot decide what she wants. On her parents’ farm, her interest in art and classical music turns her into a sort of freakish bluestocking (or larrakin), her slow plonking of Schumann on the family’s out-of-tune piano sounding to them like sounds from the end of the world. Among the well-off hoi polloi of Australia, she seems scruffy and wild and her knowledge of working-class drinking songs and enjoyment of rough-and-tumble games and dancing lead to raised eyebrows (it’s telling she switches to playing the bawdy tunes of her parents’ local drinking hole on the grand piano of her grandmother’s house – she is an outsider everywhere she goes).

Sybylla is brought to life in a sensational, star-making performance by Judy Davis. Davis isn’t afraid to make Sybylla often difficult and even a little unlikeable. She’s capricious and often infuriatingly vague about what she wants. She has high-blown dreams of an artistic life, with no fixed idea about what that might mean. She is adamantly opposed to marriage, but flirts outrageously. She scorns the uncultured dirt of the poor but finds the fussy exactitude of the rich oppressive. She’s a mass of contradictory and confused impulses, all caught up in her limited opportunities: marry as everyone wants her to do and, even if she loves the man, say goodbye to the ability to make her own choices.

This is captured perfectly in Davis’ shabby impertinence. She makes Sybylla someone never afraid to speak her mind: smutty jokes at dinner tables, blunt refusals of “I’m-doing-you-a-favour” proposals. Davis makes her defiant and difficult, but also strangely vulnerable (she’s very sensitive about her appearance – not surprising considering barely a scene goes by without someone commenting on her plainness, freckles, messy hair or some combination of all three). Davis charges about the screen with a masculine tom-boyishness. She trudges through fields, clambers up trees, drives horse and carts with aggressive pace. She rarely looks comfortable in her clothes. She has a sharp, at times even cruel, sense of humour, never suffers fools and doesn’t allow anyone to talk down to her.

Armstrong’s film however makes clear this is all in the nature of the teething problems of a young woman still mystified about what she wants from life. And who can blame Sybylla at the unattractiveness of the various alternatives put to her (basically a range of glorified servant roles). She is even dispatched to serve as a governess to a group of scruffy farm children, again tellingly the only time she truly embraces the comfort of formal clothes, as if cementing her place as not among the mud. (This sequence does show Sybylla’s social flexibility as, much to her surprise, she forms a bond with these coarse workers.) It’s a situation made particularly difficult when she has two viable suitors thrust at her.

The first she can dismiss with ease – a pompous stuff-shirt played with smackable smugness by Frank Hawdon. The other is far more viable: a kindred-spirit of a sort played by an attractively charismatic Sam Neill. Harry and Sybylla capture in each other the exact qualities the other finds attractive but would cause long-term disaster in marriage. Sybylla is attracted to Harry’s humour and intelligence but would find his settled landowning life restrictive. Harry is drawn to Sybylla’s free-spirited independence but long-term would find it infuriating. Nevertheless, the temptation to marry is strong for both of them.

Armstrong’s film expertly builds the unspoken, awkward courtship between these two. They take it in turns to ignore and provoke jealousy in each other. When thrown together they go from surly silence into bawdy flirtation (including an epic outdoor pillow-fight across Harry’s farmland). The question always remains though whether marriage is the right choice for either of them. Not least as it would potentially end Sybylla’s dreams of exploring the world and her place in it.

My Brilliant Career is lusciously designed (by Luciana Arrighi) and beautifully shot (by Donald McAlpine). Gillian Armstrong brings a strong visual eye to the film – there are some superb compositions involving windows and walls creating visual barriers between characters and some terrific transitions (the finest being a cut that visually compares Sybylla’s beside her bed with her mother in her dining room at home). The film builds a wonderfully subtle feminist picture, with several women – Sybylla’s mother who has married for love and found poverty, her aunt (well played by Wendy Hughes) jilted by an unsuitable husband, her great aunt who chose freedom but is deeply lonely – presenting potential life paths that further illustrate the paucity of choice.

It makes for a prickly but eventually very involving film, with a sly wit, very well filmed that gradually makes us care deeply for a character who is initially as irritating and challenging for the viewer as she can be for the characters. With a brilliant performance by Judy Davis, My Brilliant Career is an important milestone in the Australian New Wave and a superb debut for Gillian Armstrong, that mixes strong thematic ideas and beautiful visuals.

Little Women (1994)

Gillian Armstrong’s beautifully cast and played adaptation of Little Women is a classic

Director: Gillian Armstrong

Cast: Winona Ryder (Jo March), Gabriel Byrne (Friedrich Bhaer), Trini Alvarado (Meg March), Kirsten Dunst (Young Amy March), Samantha Mathis (Amy March), Claire Danes (Beth March), Susan Sarandon (Marmee March), Christian Bale (Theodore Laurence), Eric Stoltz (John Brooke), John Neville (Mr Laurence), Mary Wickes (Aunt March)

There are certain adaptations that simply set the standard. I’m thinking of the BBC Pride and Prejudice or Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility. For productions like this, it almost seems superfluous to create another version: why would you want to when you can already watch the whole thing done perfectly? Gillian Armstrong’s superlative production of Little Women is such a film: so perfectly cast, immaculately acted and brilliantly assembled that I simply can’t imagine another production bettering it.

In Massachusetts during the American Civil War, the March sisters live with their mother (Susan Sarandon): sensible Meg (Trini Alvarado), tomboyish Jo (Winona Ryder), gentle Beth (Claire Danes) and temperamental Amy (Kirsten Dunst). While their father is away fighting, the girls grow up and experience the highs and lows of life and love, while never losing sight of the strong bond that holds them together.

Not only is it impossible to imagine another production besting this, I can’t imagine another creating so many “something in my eye” moments as this film manages. Gillian Armstrong’s tender direction gets a guaranteed emotional response from the audience every time, largely because she keeps the film simple, focused and doesn’t overegg the emotion. She recognises the story itself carries delicious highs and heartbreaking lows – and lets these moments speak for themselves. From its opening moments, establishing the girls’ love of theatricals and their own private “Pickwick club”, you know you are in the safe hands of people who fully understand the novel.

It’s a film which plays it very, very simple and lets the beauty of the moments speak for themselves. Many work perfectly: no less than three times I felt myself welling up, from the presentation of Mr Laurence’s piano to Beth, to Beth’s tragic death, to the final scenes between Jo and Professor Bhaer. Each of these moments is quite simply perfectly played and carry a major emotional wallop. It’s because Armstrong sets out a film that is totally straight, and a completely loving and respectful adaptation of Alcott’s novel. Armstrong, and adapter Robin Swicord, also build a profound, focused story of growing up and learning to adjust to loss and the changes life brings us. Focusing on this creates a very clear journey in the movie – as well as a story anyone who has had any life experiences is going to respond to.

Part of the reason why the film is such a complete success is the superb playing from a cast without a weak link among it. The four March sisters genuinely feel like people who have grown up together, so strong are the bonds of chemistry between them. I’d also hugely commend Armstrong and Swicord for so skilfully establishing the different personalities of the sisters – within the opening few minutes you’ll feel like you know all their personalities exactly (a task utterly failed by a recent three-part BBC adaptation).

In the lead role, it’s scintillating to watch Winona Ryder and remember what a superb, heartfelt and gloriously expressive actress she is. Vulnerable but also tomboyish, boisterous and also tender, she brilliantly captures Jo and her semi-bohemian, semi-homespun yearnings, and her passionate love for a life different from the traditional. Ryder also has such wonderful skill with conveying emotion – at several key moments, waves of emotion seem to pass over her face in careful micro-expressions. Several moments carry the weight that they do, because Ryder sells them so well. 

Her three sisters are equally well-cast. If she has a rival for skill of expression and conveying depth of emotion it’s Claire Danes, who is astonishingly good as the gentle Beth (hard to believe she was only 15 at the time!). Danes’ simple joy and her gentle, unassuming love for those around her really hit home. Danes’ joyful warmth makes Beth’s acceptance of the piano from Mr Laurence a beautiful moment, while her tender humanity makes her death incredibly moving. Kirstin Dunst is superb as the young Amy – part brattish pre-teen, part excitable child. Her sudden horror when she realises the gravity of burning Jo’s book again helps this moment work so well. Trini Alvarado has the less interesting part, but her grounded, calm, proper and gentle performance as Meg balances the work of the sisters really well, and Alvarado demonstrates she has real empathy for the role.

The rest of the cast are equally good. Samantha Mathis (taking over the older Amy) delivers an excellent portrayal of a woman keen to head into the world. Susan Sarandon is perfect as a wonderfully loving, all-knowing mother. Christian Bale is perfect as the playboyish Teddy, full of playful fire. John Neville sells a few crucial scenes as a humane Mr Laurence. Gabriel Byrne is certainly far more handsome than his literary counterpart, but he’s so wonderfully gentle, caring and kind that it hardly matters: the relationship between him and Jo is beautifully judged.

Beautifully judged basically sums up the whole thing: there is not a bum note in this whole film. Armstrong and Swicord nail every single decision. Armstrong’s direction is outstanding: a brilliant example is the gently, unbearably sad sequence of sprinkling roses in Beth’s room after her death – it’s so simply done but incredibly moving. The film is crammed with moments like this, beautifully scored by Thomas Newman. Swicord’s script is marvellous, and it successfully draws out the feminist message of the book, without hammering the points: it gently flags up the lack of opportunities often available for women at the time, but also celebrates the contribution they can make. 

Little Women is a simply superb piece of adaptation, and a deeply affecting and heart-warming film. Only a film that lets you invest in the characters as much as this, could move you as much as it does. When Ryder smiles, you feel your whole world light up. When Danes cries with joy you feel your heart sing. When tragedy comes you feel like you’ve had a loss yourself. The story is superbly streamlined, each character is perfectly established, the relationships between them all are so wonderfully done – you can’t help but fall in love with it. If it had been a film about men it would have been littered with Oscar nominations. As it is, despite the sexism of the Academy, it’s a film you’ll treasure and return to again and again.