Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees sheds her corset, defies Victorian convention, and sets out on a journey of self-discovery, only slightly hindered by the fact that she doesn't live in 1897 Australia.
Our review of My Brilliant Career (Blu-Ray), published November 24th, 2009, is also available.
"I can't lose myself in somebody else's life when I haven't lived my own yet."—Sybylla
Over ten years ago when I first saw My Brilliant Career, I was disappointed. I had expected a typical formula romance, and when the film didn't follow the formula, I felt cheated. It's amazing what a bit more life experience can do to one's perspective. Coming back to the film now, I find it richly rewarding, even exhilarating, and with the only possible ending that it could have had given the character at the story's heart. Ten years ago I would have agreed with the investor who, according to producer Margaret Fink, argued for a conventional ending. Now I rejoice that the film had the courage to follow its heroine where she wanted to go. My Brilliant Career is about a woman who dared to defy convention, so it only makes sense that the film would too.
Facts of the Case
Possum Gully, Australia, is no place for an ambitious teenager like Sybylla Melvin (Judy Davis, Naked Lunch) to find happiness, especially in the year 1897. As the eldest child, Sybylla learns from her mother that she's expected to leave home and go into domestic service. But Sybylla has plans for a career—make that a brilliant career—and even though she hasn't yet decided whether it will be in literature, music, or the theater, she's determined that the choice will be hers alone. Thus, when her prosperous Grandmother Bossier (Aileen Britton) invites her for a visit and begins to groom her for a good marriage, Sybylla resists. How can she think of marrying when she hasn't begun her career? But then she becomes acquainted with handsome, aristocratic Harry Beecham (Sam Neill, Jurassic Park), and her restlessness finds a new focus. Harry is both attracted to and taken aback by Sybylla's lack of propriety, and it isn't long before Sybylla finds that she must choose between marriage and a life of her own.
Upon its release in 1979, My Brilliant Career made a huge splash, and it's not hard to see why audiences took this low-budget Australian film to heart. For a start, there's Judy Davis's star-making performance as the unconventional Sybylla. Davis hums with energy; even her hair seems to radiate it. She has all of youth's curiosity and an audacity all her own, which is often evident when she deals with the smarmy jackaroo Frank Hawdon (Robert Grubb, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) or stuffy social situations. Despite her conviction that she's homely, she's refreshingly un-selfconscious; when Harry comes upon her for the first time, she's sitting in a tree with her skirts hitched up around her waist and her pantalettes in plain view. And when the sexual tension between her and Harry becomes too much to bear, she breaks through it by starting a pillow fight, in one of the film's most triumphant sequences. No wonder her ladylike grandmother regards her with dismay…but for a modern viewer, she's invigorating to behold.
Davis's vibrant performance is also complemented by superb acting from the rest of the ensemble. Sam Neill captures the right mixture of gentlemanly reserve and rakish good humor as Harry Beecham; he shows us with surprisingly little dialogue how he grows to care about Sybylla even as she continues to baffle and surprise him. Sybylla's ladylike relatives, gentle Aunt Helen (the luminous Wendy Hughes, Homicide: Life on the Street) and dignified Grandmother Bossier, are unexpectedly enjoyable since they aren't just the stern figures we expect to see imposing society's strictures on our heroine; both genuinely love Sybylla, and they are well-rounded people in their own right instead of simply blocking characters. Likewise, Harry's Aunt Gussie (Patricia Kennedy), who at first seems brusque and intimidating, soon reveals a sly sense of humor and an unexpected appreciation for Sybylla. It's a pleasure to see that the female characters who have taken the traditional route for women in the era aren't portrayed as one-dimensional stereotypes.
The sensitive direction by Gillian Armstrong, who would go on to direct such mainstream successes as Little Women, also stands out. While in 1979 the time was ripe for a feminist drama, the film has weathered its age with grace thanks to Armstrong's light touch with the material: Its message of female selfhood is conveyed with humor, warmth, and a spirit of romance. It also helps that Sybylla is a heroine that almost everyone should be able to relate to, not just women or feminists. When her mother announces that her future has been planned for her and Sybylla bursts out, "Don't I have a choice?" it's a moment that will resonate with anyone who ever butted their heads against parental control. Armstrong is also aided by many talented colleagues, a number of whom have gone on to work on very high-profile films. Production design is by Luciana Arrighi, later an Oscar winner for her work on Howards End. Locations as diverse as Harry Beecham's family manor and the squalid outback settlement of the McSwatt family come to life and vividly convey how different are the worlds Sybylla is moving between—and how restrictive are her choices, albeit in different ways. The piquant screenplay is by Eleanor Witcombe, adapted from the 1901 novel by Miles Franklin (a woman writer, despite her mannish moniker). Of particular note is the stunning cinematography by Don McAlpine, who would go on to work frequently with Baz Luhrmann; the vistas of the Australian countryside are remarkable.
Especially considering the excellence of the cinematography, it's a pleasure to note that this long-awaited DVD release features a new digital restoration. The visual presentation for the film is clean and crisp, with impressive detail, and presents the sun-bleached color palette with great fidelity. The film's vintage means that there is a great deal of grain in certain scenes, and other effects of age such as some faint intermittent flicker and occasional speckling are also present, but overall this is an extremely fine transfer. The soundtrack is not as dynamic as those of newer films (featuring very little bass, for example), but it too is very clean and free of distortion. The default audio track is 5.1 surround, which keeps the dialogue mostly front-and-center while spreading ambient sound and music out. This was reasonably satisfying, although sometimes the dialogue volume level suffered because of the emphasis on the rest of the aural landscape. When I tried out the original mono track I was pleasantly surprised that it gave precedence to dialogue; that's probably the track I'll be using in future viewings. The audio options also include 2.0 surround and a 6.1 DTS-ES option, which my system isn't equipped to decode.
This two-disc set comes well appointed with supplemental material. On Disc One the extras comprise two markedly different trailers for the film—one Australian, one American—and an illuminating commentary by director Armstrong. Although she takes a laid-back approach and doesn't try to fill every moment, Armstrong provides a lot of interesting behind-the-scenes information and some enjoyable anecdotes (such as how a crew member brilliantly improvised a dust storm after their budget ran out). She also discusses the parent novel, which will be interesting for those who, like me, find the process of adaptation an intriguing subject. Disc Two provides a small still gallery, new interviews with Armstrong and producer Margaret Fink, red-carpet interview footage from the film's Cannes screening (including some sound bites from the notoriously shy Davis), and "The Miles Franklin Story," a four-minute biographical featurette on Miles Franklin. The film had definitely piqued my curiosity about the author of the book, and I enjoyed learning more about her; I only wish this featurette had gone into more depth (the Wikipedia article linked in the sidebar, for example, contains much information not in the featurette).
The interviews, both essentially nine-minute monologues, are packed with information, and I found Margaret Fink's particularly illuminating: It turns out that she is the person we can largely credit for the film's existence, since she snapped up the film rights to the novel back in 1965 and worked through the intervening years to find the right screenwriter and the funding (both uphill tasks). We also get to hear about the casting process, including the impression Sam Neill made on Fink the first time she saw him in person: It was "like meeting a lover," she says, still sounding awed. The interview with Armstrong is solid as well, although there is some understandable overlap of her commentary. The vintage Cannes footage is a particularly thoughtful inclusion, and although the stills gallery only contains eight images, it's nice to see the vintage posters that are included.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The only real complaint I have about this film is that after taking its time to set up the heroine's dilemma, it wraps it up very quickly. The story's conclusion feels rushed, and if the last fifteen minutes had been doubled, I think the structure would feel more balanced. In her commentary, Armstrong mentions almost offhandedly the decision that the film would run 90 minutes, and I can't help wondering if this seemingly arbitrary running time meant the sacrifice of some story development. Armstrong also mentions that a script doctor cut Witcombe's screenplay fairly drastically, and perhaps the problems began at that stage of the process. For whatever reason, the story ends almost when it feels like it's just moving into a new chapter, and that was disorienting.
Also disorienting at times were the Australian accents, and I was piqued that there are no subtitles to assist in moments where the dialogue thwarted me. No option but to back up and re-play, unfortunately. The good news is that on balance there weren't that many lines that—due either to the accents or to muffled sound—were difficult to comprehend.
Finally, I must object to the cover art used to package this release. Make no mistake, I think it's beautiful—too beautiful, in fact, for the vigorous and unsentimental film contained within. Cover art like this will lead others to make the same mistake I did years ago: expecting My Brilliant Career to be a sweet, old-fashioned, and hence predictable love story. A far more appropriate image, and one I find captivating, is the still photograph of Davis that is actually used on Disc One. It shows her in close-up, her wild hair streaming out in the wind, her eyes staring down destiny with an almost daunting intensity. That's the image of Sybylla I think viewers should carry with them.
As a little girl I was always disappointed when the heroines of my favorite books, like Anne of Green Gables and Betsy Ray (of the Betsy-Tacy books), gave up their literary ambitions for marriage. My Brilliant Career is a refreshing antidote to that tendency. As a romance, it refuses to be schmaltzy or sentimental; and as a coming-of-age story, it benefits from an unusual setting and a high-spirited, captivating heroine. Don't miss it. And if you end up falling in love with Sybylla, you may want to check out Davis's bracing performance as another unconventional 19th-century writer, George Sand, in Impromptu.
If this court is expected to try every young woman who rebels against Victorian society, we'll never get through our docket. Case dismissed!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
• Audio Commentary by Director Gillian Armstrong
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