My Brilliant Career
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An outback farmer's daughter fights sexism to be a writer in circa-1900 Australia. Directed by Gillian Armstrong.
The acclaimed debut of Judy Davis is the best reason to see My Brilliant Career, and the award-winning film is highly recommended as the feature debut of director Gillian Armstrong. This was an early entry in the magnificent "New Australian Cinema" movement that yielded such classics as Picnic at Hanging Rock, Gallipoli, and Breaker Morant, and 27-year-old Armstrong (who would later direct the popular 1994 version of Little Women) brought just the right feminist touch to this stately adaptation of the 1901 semi-autobiographical novel by Miles Franklin. Davis (who was 23 at the time) plays 16-year-old Sybylla Melvyn, on the verge of womanhood in turn-of-the-century Australia and determined to have a "brilliant career" as an independent writer and lover of life, but her attraction to a wealthy bachelor (Sam Neill, charming as always), and the pressures of her family to lead a conventional life of devoted domesticity, turn this into a romantic and highly observant drama of personal dilemma and free-spirited conviction. It's no surprise that Davis and Armstrong went on to brilliant careers themselves (Davis starred in David Lean's A Passage to India just a few years later). --Jeff ShannonSee all Editorial Reviews
- Interview with Director Gillian Armstrong
- Interview with Producer Margaret Fink
- Cannes Film Festival Newsreel Featuring Star Judy Davis, Director Gillian Armstrong and Producer Margaret Fink
- "The Miles Franklin Story"
- Poster & Still Gallery
- Theatrical Trailers
- Teachers' Study Guide DVD-ROM
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Well, Sybylla was not as likable. Her behavior and methods didn't seem as high-minded as I had thought when I was younger. Sybylla was still a sympathetic character, either to be trapped in the boondocks with little chance to break out of the rut of never-ending farm life, or be expected to make a good marriage. No other 'acceptable-for-a-woman' choices were available. Sybylla was a non-conformist, even a radical for the times, which was admirable. She admits to her egotistical nature from the jump. However, in my latest viewing her selfishness seemed more pronounced and damaging to even the most well-meaning of her circle. I felt a wee bit more sympathy for her mother exasperated by a daughter who seemed to prefer to sit and dream of artistic greatness - in what field she didn't know really, although she did demonstrate talent - rather than help about the house. I thought her suitors (even the one who was a confirmed a$$) could be forgiven for believing their efforts were welcome. One opinion didn't change - her choice in the end was the best one and made for the most authentic ending. Oh, and the pillow fight was still hot.
Sybylla remains interesting, and watching her slow maturation was better appreciated this time around. The performances by all of the actors, the direction, and the blu-ray quality are fine.
But Sybilla is not to be pinned down. She feels a sense of her own destiny, and giving that over to a marriage before she's 20 is not even conceivable for her. She wants to write, and her passion to do so is motivated by the deep compassion and despair she feels for the strong, beautiful, loving and prickly but lovable people of her harsh country, whom she sees as wasting their lives in an endless toil of day-to-day labor that she finds both noble and pointless. Her mother's early fade to old age, in stark contrast to her sister, who, having stayed behind with their mother, is still gorgeous and healthy, much to Sybilla's surprise (the difference between the two is emphasized by some cross-cutting). We see how life as a farmer's wife in the harsh Outback, working round the clock, having (and burying) baby after baby, has stretched her mother to a thin, exhausted shell of her former self. This grieves Sybilla, though she also is filled with admiration for her. It's this duality of experience that is at the heart of the story.
Sybilla's grandmother, elegantly played by Aileen Britton, is a gentle woman with a steel backbone, who has, in her own way, survived a challenging life despite the appearance of ease. She and her (other) daughter Helen, set out to transform Sybilla from wildcat to elegant young woman, combing out a mane of hair we would not see again until a few years later when Helena Bonham Carter showed up in "A Room with a View," giving her facials, teaching her to walk and talk like a lady, and trying (mostly in vain) to make this transformation more than skin deep.
As much as Sybilla enjoys the experiences of her new life, she doesn't lose any of the strength with which she was born and which was nurtured on the farm, and when she goes back to her family home she is as much at ease pulling a stuck cow out of the mud as she was in her grandmother's drawing room. Harry finds her here, watching in bewildered admiration from a distance in his perfect clothes and coiffed hair, and again their differences are underscored. It is nearly impossible to see them together, as one can't help but feel that to entirely give up this life would diminish her, yet neither do we want her to live alone and unloved. We are as conflicted as she is.
After a long time in the idyllic home of her grandmother, and after asking for and receiving Harry's promise that he'll give her two years to figure out what she wants and who she is before marrying him, Sybilla is forced to leave in order to work as a governess to pay off her father's debt. She is at first discouraged and resentful (particularly as the family lives in filth and ignorance, yet represent a greater economic health than her own fathers's), then falls in love with the family and gives them everything she has. There's a wonderful scene where she reads to them a story, printed on the newspaper the family has papered the walls with (to keep out the nighttime cold); she runs from paper to paper in search of the next chapter, the whole family mesmerized by her energetic and theatrical reading of the story. There is a wonderful irony in this section, which I will not give away here, but she is sent home, and it's this which leads to her to her return to her father's farm, where Harry finds her, and asks her to marry him. But Sybilla still can't promise--she has decided to become a writer, and begs for Harry's understanding. It's a heartbreaking scene between a strong woman, capable of great love yet unable to yet give up her independence, and a warm, good man who neither wants to compromise the woman he loves, nor his own love for her.
Throughout her adventures, she never loses sight of her goal, and by the end, her pencil-written, painstakingly produced manuscript (several inches high), is mailed off to a London publisher.
Franklin's book was published, and though it was out of print for a long time, I was lucky enough to find a 2nd hand one in a used book store. But perhaps the release of the film onto DVD will stimulate a new printing of the book, too. I recommend it as well. Her writing is down-to-earth and compelling, and clearly fulfilled her goal--she brings to life the people of her country vividly and with great respect and admiration. Both Armstrong and Davis seem to understand and respect how deeply the character of Sybilla lives, and work hard to bring her fully to life. So successful are they that poor Harry Beecham seems really too anemic for her--she lives so deeply that Harry's sheltered life has not grown him up to be as strong and complex as she is. This connundrum haunts her throughout the story.
"My Brilliant Career" was the first film I saw when I moved to Berkeley in 1980 to become a filmmaker, and it was certainly an inspiration. To be able to bring such characters to life and, more importantly to the screen, gave me hope that the art of cinema was still alive and well, despite the massive changes brought about in this country by the new "blockbuster" phenomenon. It was a small film, seen by lovers of cinema first, then, after word of mouth, by everyone, including the Academy, who nominated it. Of course, it had won many Australian and European awards already.
This little film launched three important careers, Judy Davis', Gillian Armstrong's, and Sam Neill's. For these careers, all brilliant, we should be grateful. That it's also a great work of cinematic art is a fabulous bonus, that now everyone will get to appreciate. It was a long wait, but worth it.
THANK YOU AMAZON IT WAS A GREAT FILM LOVED IT YEARS AGO WAS GREAT TO REVISIT.
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Judy Davis seems to gravitate to quirky-cool films. one of the reasons I like her: )
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