Tag: Judy Davis

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.

Husbands and Wives (1992)

Woody Allen’s relationship falls apart in Husbands and Wives. Life imitates Art?

Director: Woody Allen

Cast: Woody Allen (Gabe Roth), Judy Davis (Sally Simmons), Mia Farrow (Judy Roth), Juliette Lewis (Rain), Liam Neeson (Michael Gates), Sydney Pollack (Jack Simmons), Lysette Anthony (Sam), Blythe Danner (Rain’s mother), Ron Rifkin (Richard), Cristi Conaway (Shawn Grainger)

Gabe (Woody Allen) and Judy (Mia Farrow) are shocked and confused when their best friends Sally (Judy Davis) and Jack (Sydney Pollack) calmly announce before dinner they are separating. Both find themselves new partners – Judy’s colleague Michael (Liam Neeson), who Judy is also attracted to, and new-age aerobics trainer Sam (Lysette Anthony) – but also discover the grass is not always greener. Meanwhile, Judy is increasingly discontented with her childless marriage and Gabe develops a flirtatious friendship with his student Rain (Juliette Lewis), an aspiring writer with a fixation on older men.

You can’t watch Husbands and Wives and not think about the real-life relationship between Allen and Farrow. The film was their last collaboration and released just as their incredibly public separation filled the newspapers (which it has continued to do ever since). Farrow is cast as a character that, like Hannah and Her Sisters, feels like a twist on her own life – only this time darker. Again, the conceiving of children is a major problem for the Allen-Farrow characters and Farrow’s character is described as considerate but overbearing, with the addition here that she is passive-aggressive and manipulative. You can’t help but think, how much was Allen already resenting her?

But, leaving aside the psychology (I think it’s a fair thought though – Allen’s own films have commented numerous times on how writers re-write their own lives, and there are more than enough signs Allen does the same) this is still one of Allen’s most impressive works. Husbands and Wivesexplores the complex nature of adult relationships, in particular how familiarity can breed a dissatisfaction with our own lives. It also looks at how moving on is never easy and how we are still tied with emotional cords we can’t easily cut to the very people we might want to leave behind.

So, Jack can jump into his new relationship with the younger and sexually exciting Sam (Jack smugly sings the virtues of healthy living and watching silly films). But he is still overcome with jealousy when Sally also starts dating. Sally says she enjoys the single life – but during a date constantly retreats into a side room (where she can be easily overheard by her date) to phone Jack and berate him for moving on so soon after their separation. Allen argues that, discontented and problematic as Jack and Sally’s marriage may be, it is so familiar to them that the idea of leaving it is too much.

Essentially, the shared memories and experiences of a long-term relationship make it too difficult to move on. The separation of their friends makes Gabe and Judy readdress their own relationship – and the find its closer to the rocks than they think. With the passion gone, Gabe feels Judy doesn’t need him while Judy is unhappy with Gabe’s unwillingness to have a child. Judy doesn’t share her poetry with him and Gabe feels she is overly critical of his new novel (and is unhappy about the character in it who is clearly her). Inevitably (it is Allen) sex comes into play – both Gabe and Jack are sexually dissatisfied: Judy has lost interest and Sally can’t enjoy sex (not even with Liam Neeson).

Gabe, therefore, allows himself to get closer to Juliette Lewis’ student on the creative writing course he teaches. Again, being Allen, there is a considerable age difference – but at least that’s addressed in the film, as every single one of Rain’s exes are older men, all with positions of authority over her (a family friend, her psychiatrist, her teacher…). Lewis is rather good as this coquetteish flirt, and Gabe is (at first) much more open to her criticism of his book than he was from Judy (largely as, consciously or not, he wants to get in her pants).

The film is shot with a cinema verité fly-on-the-wall immediacy, echoing documentary. It has the characters pop-up as talking heads throughout, discussing their perceptions and feelings to an unseen interviewer. It’s an approach that has mixed results – although an interesting new way for Allen to use the internal monologue. The documentary approach does, however, produce some excellent scenes. Most striking, the raw hand-held energy of the opening scene, where Jack and Sally announce their separation to the rising horror and shock of Gabe and Judy, surely one of Allen’s finest shot and acted scenes.

Of course, they are mainly horrified because they see they have even less in common, really, than Jack and Sally. While Allen throws in one happy marriage – Rain’s parents seem loving – he also makes it clear their daughter is maladjusted. Husbands and Wives suffers under Allen’s cynicism for humanity – there isn’t a lot of hope in here, other than you might find a more functional type of contented misery. The sympathy also drifts more to the male characters: Gabe is a sort of innocent, Jack impulsive but his actions justified. On the other hand, Judy is a manipulator, Sally an shrill, frigid neurotic, Sam an idiot and Rain a temptress.

The performances are good. Judy Davis is very good (and Oscar-nominated) as the difficult, emotionally confused Sally. Pollack is fittingly smug as a man in the midst of a mid-life crisis. Neeson rather touching as an overly needy editor. Allen and Farrow play familiar parts, but with an accomplished ease. It’s just that Husbands and Wives is a rather glum watch – for all the jokes. It takes a depressing, rather archly cynical look at a world that doesn’t have a lot of promise in it. While it might well be truthful, the documentary approach of the film sometimes brings it closer to the Allen/Farrow home than you might find comfortable.

A Passage to India (1984)

Judy Davis and Victor Bannerjee in Lean’s final film on tensions in the Raj, A Passage to India

Director: David Lean

Cast: Victor Bannerjee (Dr Azizi), Judy Davis (Adela Quested), Peggy Ashcroft (Mrs Moore), James Fox (Richard Fielding), Alec Guinness (Professor Narayan Godbole), Nigel Havers (Ronny Heaslop), Richard Wilson (Collector Turton), Antonia Pemberton (Mrs Turton), Michael Culver (Major McBryde), Clive Swift (Major Callendar), Art Malik (Ali), Saeed Jaffrey (Hamidullah), Ann Firbank (Mrs Callendar), Roshan Seth (Amit Rao)

David Lean’s final film came after a 14 year hiatus after the overwhelmingly negative reaction to Ryan’s Daughter. (During a disastrous two-hour lunchtime with several prominent US film critics, Lean was asked outright how the director of Brief Encounter could have made “such a piece of bullshit” – the experience shattered his confidence for years). When he returned, it was with this handsome literary adaptation of EM Forster’s classic novel on the tensions in the British Raj. A Passage to India is a wonderful fusion between Lean’s later films that fill the largest canvas, and the carefully judged Dickensian adaptations of his early years.

In 1920s Chandrapore, Adela Quested (Judy Davis) has arrived from England with her prospective mother-in-law Mrs Moore (Peggy Ashcroft) to marry the local magistrate Ronny Heaslop (Nigel Havers). The two women are fascinated by India and its culture – and quickly bored with the parts of it the ex-pat community will show them (basically a sort of little-England alcove). When they befriend local Muslim doctor Aziz (Victor Bannerjee) and liberal pro-Indian school superintendent Richard Fielding (James Fox), Aziz invites them on a trip to the local Marabar Caves. During the trip, Miss Quested flees and accuses Aziz of attempted rape. Aziz pleas his innocence – Fielding and Mrs Moore believe him, Miss Quested seems confused – but the case becomes a cause celebre that will explode the tensions between the rulers and the colonised.

Lean’s production of the book (as well as directing, he also wrote the screenplay and edited the film) is a delicate and handsome adaptation, carefully capturing the events of the book and making a manful effort to bring to life its textures and complexities. Forster had worked in India for several years as the secretary to a Maharajah and for many years was in love with an Indian called Masood. He had a unique perspective of Indian/English relations (much of it filtered into the character of Fielding) which he believed was underpinned not only by misunderstanding but also unpassable barriers that Empire throws up between East and West.

A Passage to India doesn’t always quite manage to capture this – perhaps largely because the book’s third act (which focuses in particular on the strains on the friendship between Aziz and Fielding) is truncated down to about 12 minutes of the film’s 2 and half hour run time. This does mean the film’s final impact feels rushed and unclear – and that the final parting of these characters doesn’t carry the impact it should. I can see why this has been done – that section of the book is less interesting, and also shows Aziz, at times, in a less sympathetic light – but it does mean the film misses something of the book’s engagement with moral and intellectual issues in favour of delivering the cold, hard plot of the Caves and the trial.

But these sections are well-judged, carefully structured and expertly executed. Lean’s film is very good on observing the kneejerk racism (some paternal, some outright unpleasant) from the British community. The incongruity of British clubs, garden parties and middle-class homes and lawns in a foreign land. How Indians are only welcome into these settings as silent servants or repurposed into British icons, such as brass bands. The total detachment of the rulers from the ruled: the tour of India arranged by Ronny features the British barracks, court-room and culminates in some ghastly amateur theatricals. Indians exist only to be told what to do and to applaud their rulers.

This is counterpointed with the rich, vibrant, dynamic culture of the Indians. If the film sometimes tips into displaying this as a sort of Oriental mysticism, that can be partly because our experience of it is often filtered through Adela and Mrs Moore who are bewitched and intrigued by a country of colours, emotions and passions unheard of in Britain.

Lean’s film never overlooks the Indians though. Our introduction to Aziz is to see him nearly mowed down on his bike by a speeding government car. His home is kept in good condition, but cannot compare to the wealth of the British. He and his friends talk passionately of the possibility for independence. There is a natural expectation of rudeness and dismissal from the British, that is taken in their stride.

Well played – if the role is a little passive – by Victor Bannerjee, Aziz is the victim we witness events through. Proud to befriend the British women, friendly and over-eager, Aziz is a highly unlikely would-be rapist. Put-upon and dismissed by his British superiors, he’s a lonely widower whose children are living hundreds of miles away, who suggests the trip in a moment of social awkwardness and goes to absurd ends to make the trip a success.

Sadly, its doomed. Leans film does a good job of maintaining much of the book’s mystery of what happens in the caves. Lean also finds a visual way of representing much that lies implied in the book. In an invented scene before  the trip, Adela cycles into the Indian countryside eventually finding a ruined temple filled with sexually explicit statues and hordes of monkeys in heat. Its clear the exposure to sexuality both shocks and unnerves her – but also fascinates her. Later she dreams of the statues she has seen. The same overwhelming feels seem to consume her in the caves – a heightened sense bought on by claustrophobia and a fear of a moment of personal intimacy between her and Aziz, perhaps spinning off into a temporary nervous collapse.

The film doesn’t state it for sure, but the implication is carefully put there. It leads perfectly into the well-staged trial scenes. Lean’s film focuses largely on delivering the plot of the novel, rather than the depths, but in delivering this crucial encounter he finds a marvellous way to use the language of film (music, editing and photography all interplay effectively in the sequences to add to their unsettling eeriness) to dramatise a literary sequence.

It’s not a perfect film. At times languid, it could no doubt have done with a bit more tightening and pace (it takes nearly half the film to reach the caves). While the film benefits from the build of the atmosphere and the tensions between both cultures, if Lean can do Great Expectations in less than two hours you feel he could have done this book more tightly. The unfortunate decision to cast a brown-face Alec Guinness as Brahmin scholar Professor Godbole looks more uncomfortable with each passing year – not least as all other Indian roles are played by Indian actors.

The film does however have a very strong cast. Judy Davis is both fragile, uncertain and at times even deeply frustrating (in the intended way!) as Miss Quested. Peggy Ashcroft won an Oscar (part of a late boom in her screen career – she also won a BAFTA the same year for The Jewel in the Crown) as the very grounded and worldly-wise Mrs Moore. James Fox gives his finest performance as the sympathetic Fielding caught between two worlds and eventually rejected by both.

A Passage to India has a lot of Lean’s visual mastery, but it’s less a sweeping pictorial epic and more of a careful and well-judged literary adaptation. While it does focus more on the plot and less on the meaning of the novel, and it overlong and at times lacking in energy, it also has some fine performances and brings many parts of the novel triumphantly to life. His final film does not disgrace his CV.