Blue Underground // 1979 // 100 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // November 24th, 2009
"Dear fellow countrymen, just a few words to let you know that this story is going to be all about me. So, in answer to many requests, here is the story of my career...here is the story, of my career...my brilliant career. I make no apologies for sounding egotistical, because I am!"
Sybylla Melvin (Judy Davis, The Ref) is a familiar sort of protagonist: a free-spirited young woman living in the late 19th Century who must decide between her independence and a dashing suitor. We've read such stories over and over again, and seen them turned into films with considerable frequency. However, it should be noted that My Brilliant Career differs from such tales in a very noteworthy way. When the moment in which Sybylla must make the crucial decision arrives, she chooses her freedom over love. The film adaptation of this tale is a charming, sweet and innocent G-rated affair, but it's rather bold in its willingness to dismiss audience expectations in favor of a less tidy conclusion.
My Brilliant Career is based on the novel of the same name by Miles Franklin (though the fact that the writer's actual name was Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin should be noted). Franklin, an Australian writer, was similar to the fictional Sybylla in many ways. She was a young woman living in Australia, she was exceptionally independent in contrast to other young women of the era, she was hesitant about getting married and she desperately wanted to have a...well, "brilliant career" as a writer. The novel does not tell us what happened to Sybylla, but how could it? My Brilliant Career was Franklin's first novel; she had no idea whether or not it would achieve any measure of success or whether she would be able to continue that career successfully. Sybyalla is left in the same situation; not secure but most assuredly free.
The director of the film version is Gillian Armstrong, a good director who isn't really acknowledged as frequently as she ought to be. Her quiet, thoughtful period pieces perhaps fall just short of the films of Merchant-Ivory, but they are generally well-crafted and handsome productions nonetheless. Throughout most of the 1970s, she helmed a series of short films, but My Brilliant Career was her first significant achievement. It is a modest production, looking lovely but clearly crafted on a somewhat limited budget, and Armstrong is able to turn the spare simplicity of the film into a virtue. The tale flows like a gentle stream, moving from one moment to the next softly and always keeping the emphasis on the characters rather than the plot. The story is straightforward and not terribly complicated (it probably could have been told well enough in an hour-long PBS television production), but Armstrong fills the 100-minute running time with charming bits of atmosphere that really immerse the viewer in Sybylla's world. Though the heroine of the story is English, the Australian setting feels considerably different than what we usually get in this sort of story, adding another fresh element into the mix.
The film was not only a breakthrough for Armstrong, but also for actress Judy Davis, who received her first starring role. Armstrong informs us in her very engaging audio commentary that Davis did not particularly care for the part, and that she was even less enthusiastic about her appearance in the film (the attractive young Davis looks undeniably homely in My Brilliant Career). Nonetheless, it was a great opportunity for Davis to make her mark, and she did so with surprising confidence. Not for a moment does Davis come across as a nervous newcomer in the film. She instantly slips into Sybylla's skin, never missing a beat even during the most complex and challenging scenes. Also relatively new to the acting scene was co-star Sam Neill, who oozes slightly arrogant charm as Sybylla's would-be lover. There are also fine turns from Wendy Hughes (High Rolling) as the disapproving Aunt Helen and from Robert Grubb (Gallipoli) as the hapless suitor Frank.
The film received a remastered transfer and a deluxe edition DVD set a few years ago, and now the same content makes its way to Blu-ray. The transfer really is gorgeous for a 30-year-old low-budget film, capturing the wild Australian countryside with detail and depth. There are very few scratches and flecks to be found, and only a few shots come across as being too soft. Blacks are reasonably deep, flesh tones are accurate, and the landscape shots are nothing short of marvelous. The film receives a new 7.1 lossless mix, which is relatively clean and clear but hardly as impressive as you might expect. It's a pretty front-heavy track, only occasionally giving the rear speakers anything of interest to do. It's a very quiet movie with somewhat minimal sound design, so one can only expect so much. I suppose the audio is about as good as it can be under the circumstances.
All of the extras from the 2-disc set are repeated on this disc, beginning with the aforementioned excellent audio commentary. For less extensive thoughts on the film, you can check out a pair of 9-minute video interviews, one with Armstrong and one with producer Margaret Fink (the latter has a few particularly intriguing anecdotes). You also get footage from the Cannes Film Festival Premiere of the film, theatrical trailers, a brief featurette on Miles Franklin, and a stills gallery.
My Brilliant Career is a drama for patient viewers who can appreciate a movie that takes time to develop characters and refuses to sensationalize plot developments. Even so, in its own meek way it's a revolutionary little picture. The Blu-ray disc is excellent, worth an upgrade for those who own the DVD (particularly those who don't have the special edition).
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 EX (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* Photo Galleries