Judy Davis and Sam Neill charm in Gillian Armstrong’s period romance
One gets the sense that we are (hopefully) ushering in a new era where female voices, and stories about women, by women, are getting an equal push. Time’s Up, Me Too, and other movements are shining a light on how the cards are stacked against women in the film industry, amongst others. This illumination only adds deeper appreciation for those female filmmakers before now who were able to overcome such resistance in the past and speak their piece. My Brilliant Career is one such effort, not just positioning itself as a landmark of Australian cinema, but also as an effort that captures the defiant and inspirational spirit of its director Gillian Armstrong, its lead Judy Davis, and also the writer of the book from 1901 that the film was adapted from, Miles Franklin, a young feminist determined to take control of her path in life and society.
For her award-winning breakthrough film, director Gillian Armstrong drew on teenage author Miles Franklin’s novel, a celebrated turn-of-the-twentieth-century Australian coming-of-age story, to brashly upend the conventions of period romance. Headstrong young Sybylla Melvyn (Judy Davis, in a star-making performance), bemoans her stifling life in the backcountry, where her writerly ambitions receive little encouragement, and craves independence above all else. When a handsome landowner (Sam Neill), disarmed by her unruly charms, begins to court her, Sybylla must decide whether she can reconcile the prospect of marriage with the illustrious life’s work she has imagined for herself. Suffused with generous humor and a youthful appetite for experience, My Brilliant Career is a luminous portrait of an ardently free spirit.
Period romance meets coming of age drama in early 1900s Australia — it’s a synopsis suggestive of a tale that could easily fall into trite fare or simple, charming entertainment. But the story here, as well as the work on both sides of the camera, crafts something far less conventional that you may expect. Sybylla is a young woman born into a farming community. Her path in life seems mundanely planned out in front of her, but she dares to dream of more. This life stifles her creative spark, and even as avenues of escape open up to her, she shirks them in favor of ploughing her own path. You stay with her on this journey, delicately infused with ambiguity as to whether she’ll succeed of not, but you know you’re going to admire her efforts whatever the end result. A romantic side-plot features the (ever) charming Sam Neill as Harry Beecham, a progressive soul who is one of the few male characters who doesn’t dismiss or degrade the aspirations of Sybylla. Again, the narrative refreshingly doesn’t adhere to expected conventions, reinforcing the underlying message, championing expression and creativity in the face of suppression.
My Brilliant Career feels intrinsically tied to its Australian setting, a remote and often harsh landscape peppered with beauty, a place that forged this young woman. Judy Davis’s energy is palpable, channeled into creating this disruptive, rebellious soul fitting for the tale at hand. It’s one of those performances that both ignites and defines a career, a character that precipitates much of the wit and verbal sparring that make the film such an entertaining experience. There’s a poetry to this tale, the place, and the person; and director Gillian Armstrong captures that, admirably assisted by strong females filling roles behind the camera, including producer (Margaret Fink), adapted screenplay (Eleanor Witcombe), production design (Luciana Arrighi), and costume design (Anna Senior). This female voice is crucial in offering a nuanced and immersive exploration of sexist mentalities and outdated class structure.
The release offers a new 2K digital restoration approved by director Gillian Armstrong. The results are very impressive, showcasing the lush and verdant landscapes of Australia, natural yet vibrant colors, and fine detail. Extra features also impress:
- Audio commentary from 2009 featuring Armstrong: An upper tier commentary, largely with how it offers insights into the director’s career, and also her perspectives on working in this field as a female over the past few decades.
- New interview with Armstrong: Touches on similar notes to the commentary.
- Interview from 1980 with actor Judy Davis: Lifted from a French TV interview. Delves into her approach to acting and thoughts on cinema in general.
- New interview with production designer Luciana Arrighi: My Brilliant Career oozes lush visuals and attention to period detail, so this conversation is a welcome addition that touches on production, as well as the collaborative process with Armstong.
- One Hundred a Day short film: Running around 8 minutes, this is the short that helped secure the job for Armstrong after being seen by producer Margaret Fink. A 1930s tale about a young factory worker and her abortion that, while raw at times, clearly showcases her talent as a filmmaker.
- PLUS: An essay by critic Carrie Rickey: Inside the traditional booklet, which also contains stills and details the restoration process.
The Bottom Line
You have to thank Criterion, not just for a beautifully presented and packaged release, but for using their platform to bring this film into the orbit of new viewers, myself included. A romantic period piece, but so much more thanks to its unconventional aspects, deft direction, and a singular lead performance from Judy Davis. My Brilliant Career is a film that champions the free spirit of Australia, and more importantly, one woman who refuses to be put her in her place, instead pushing back to find what her place truly is.
My Brilliant Career is available via Criterion from April 30th, 2019.