Director: Gillian Armstrong
Screenplay: Eleanor Witcombe
Based on the novel by: Miles Franklin
Producers: Margaret Fink
Starring: Judy Davis, Sam Neill, Wendy Hughes
BBFC Certification: U
Duration: 100 mins
The Australian New Wave, an era during the 70s and 80s in which Australian cinema grew significantly in worldwide popularity, is far less talked about nowadays than the French New Wave or the New German Cinema but it nonetheless produced many excellent films, from low-key hits like Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout and Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock to blockbuster successes like the Mad Max films and Crocodile Dundee. One of the landmark films of the Australian New Wave was Gillian Armstrong’s striking feminist period drama My Brilliant Career, a beautifully shot adaptation of the 1901 novel of the same name. While the period drama is a rich source of leading roles for women, few are as unfalteringly progressive as My Brilliant Career, a film adapted from a work by female novelist Miles Franklin, by a female producer and director, Margaret Fink and Gillian Armstrong, which in turn made an instant star of its female lead, Judy Davis. The result is an unforced, intelligent film which effortlessly avoids the traps of confusing feminism with desexualisation or suggesting that romance with a male suitor must always be an undermining force.
With its sumptuous recreation of 19th century Australia, all glorious blue skies and lush vegetation, I took an instant liking to My Brilliant Career and its headstrong heroine Sybylla, played to perfection by Davis. After years of feeling let down by the direction taken by plots in costume dramas I was slightly on edge that the film might blow the impeccable study of female independence it had built up throughout its early scenes. Without dropping any spoilers, I was delighted with the direction the plot ultimately took, forsaking so many clichés that it cleverly planted the seeds for and then neglected to water. Returning to the film a second time, I was able to enjoy it even more with the assurance that it was indeed that film I hoped it would be. But it wasn’t just the removal of that nagging doubt that brought me back to the film so quickly. Having had rather a trying couple of months, I had an almost instantaneous hankering to return to the gorgeous scenery and laid-back pace of this most gently entertaining of films and it afforded me some much needed respite. It is films such as this that are often our most valuable treasures in a such a relentless world.
For all its soothing qualities and faultlessly sustained ideology, My Brilliant Career is not a perfect film. Though for the most part its 100 minutes fly by, there are moments in the final act where the film begins to drag slightly, particularly in the eleventh hour development of Sybylla’s engagement as a governess, and the nagging sense that a shorter runtime may have been more in keeping with the thin plot begins to dominate. Also, for all his subsequent fame, I’ve never been a fan of Sam Neill and in his central role as Harry Beecham, one of Sybylla’s suitors, he commits his usual sins of veering between over and under-acting, leaving Davis’s elegantly poised performance to rescue some pivotal scenes. But the rough edges of My Brilliant Career are part of its considerable charm, its more down to earth style eschewing the starchy trappings often associated with a sometimes disconcertingly edgeless genre. In this sense, Sybylla’s defiant uniqueness in a stifling world of stuffy expectations becomes a symbol for the whole film’s approach.
For viewers like myself who appreciate the wit and whimsy of a period drama but often become frustrated with the inescapable adherence to convention associated with their era, My Brilliant Career delivers on the former while subverting the latter in a manner which is not remotely unrealistic and does not stoop to forcibly inserting modern attitudes into centuries-old narratives. Instead, it is a carefully chosen, skilfully adapted and charmingly performed piece which would make a fine double feature with Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship, another costume drama which introduced a playful sense of modern independence to its source without disrupting its smooth transition to the screen.
My Brilliant Career is released on Blu-ray by Criterion on 27 May 2009. Special features are as follows:
•New, restored 4K digital transfer, approved by director Gillian Armstrong, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
•Audio commentary from 2009 featuring Armstrong
•New interview with Armstrong
•Interview from 1980 with actor Judy Davis
•New interview with production designer Luciana Arrighi
•One Hundred a Day (1973), a student short film by Armstrong
•Plus: An essay by critic Carrie Rickey