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.