My Brilliant Career – Film Review

Another long-overdue Aussie classic off my list, this one is a sensitively filmed story about the choices of a rebellious young woman growing up in rural Australia at the turn of the last century.

Gillian Armstrong’s adaptation of the Miles Franklin novel stars incredibly young Judy Davis as Sybylla Melvyn, a young woman who, like many other free-thinking heroines, is convinced that there must be more than this provincial life. While her family is scrambling around trying to protect their outback farm from the dust storm, she writes a diary entry about her desire to belong to the world of art and literature. “Here is the story of my career. My brilliant career. I make no apologies for being egotistical because I am,” Sybylla narrates, rather smugly.

Though she might be egotistical, Sybylla is at the same time deeply insecure about her lack of conventional prettiness, her freckles and her wild, wiry red hair that can never be fully tamed into a demure bun. “Useless, plain and godless” is the summary from Sybylla’s frustrated mother, who has no idea what to do with her wilful daughter. So in the end Sybylla is sent off to live with her grandmother, who obviously occupies a higher rung on the social ladder (the unspoken family understanding seems to be that while Sybylla’s mother made her bed marrying a poorer man for love, grandchildren must still be looked after).

Sybylla’s problem is that while she yearns for an independent, artistic life, she has no idea where and how to channel her yearning; when quizzed by the sceptical adults, she can only give vague, hopelessly naive answers. It’s also never really clear whether she actually possesses any remarkable artistic talents that could take her places; piano-playing young ladies must have been dime a dozen in her social circle. It makes the film more intriguing when, as a viewer, you’re unsure of whether Sybylla’s “brilliant career” is nothing but an adolescent wishful thinking.

The only thing that Sybylla is dead certain of is that marriage is not for her. Her first, comically dull suitor is easy enough to brush off, but Sybylla falters when she finds herself falling for Harry Beecham (also incredibly young and dreamy Sam Neill), a dashing, well-to-do neighbour who actually respects Sybylla’s unconventional personality. Neill and Davis have so much spark and chemistry together that Sybylla’s dilemma also becomes the audience’s dilemma; you both want our heroine to remain an unapologetic free spirit and find her artistic calling, and somehow for her to find happiness with a man who seems like a perfect match.

I wished that the streaming quality of the film was a tad better, but My Brilliant Career was still beautiful to watch. Like Picnic at Hanging Rock, it offers the same seductive juxtaposition of the dainty Victorian frocks and interiors against the harsh, sun-baked landscape, though a few scenes set in the green, lush nature settings almost make you feel like you’re watching a Jane Austen adaptation. There’s a similar Austen-like quality to the script, with its flashes of quick, sardonic wit.

I’m sorry to say that I’m not all that familiar with the filmography of Judy Davis, but here she leaps off the screen in a plum role that, along with its fierce feminist spirit, captures the awkwardness and anxiety of the transition from adolescence to adulthood. And though nowadays women don’t have to pay quite the same price for independence or career aspirations, Sybylla’s conflicting desires and tension between irreconcilable choices still feel thoroughly relevant and modern.

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