My Brilliant Career Review
This review contains some plot spoilers.
Goulborn, New South Wales, the 1890s. Sybylla Melvyn (Judy Davis) is a young girl growing up on her parents’ drought-stricken farm. Strongly idealistic and wanting more from life than just a husband, Sybylla goes to stay with her grandmother (Aileen Britton) and her unmarried aunt Helen (Wendy Hughes). With Helen’s encouragement, Sybylla pursues her interest in music and books. Frank Hawdon (Robert Grubb) is attracted to Sybylla though she thinks he’s an idiot and much prefers Harry Beecham (Sam Neill).
The Australian Film Revival of the 1970s produced many fine films and talented directors, but My Brilliant Career, released in 1979, was a particular landmark. Gillian Armstrong (credited here as Gill Armstrong), born in 1950 in Melbourne, was part of the second wave of directors. She began as a costume designer for the theatre, but took a film course at College. In her final year she met Fred Schepisi, who offered her a job at his commercials company, The Film House. This led to Armstrong enrolling at the newly-created Australian Film and Television School, and was amongst its first graduates in 1973, Philip Noyce and Chris Noonan being others. After working as Schepisi’s assistant on his episode of Libido. and worked as art director on the 1973 films Promised Woman and The Removalists while making her own documentaries and short films, including an award-winning 50-minuter, The Singer and the Dancer. Margaret Fink, who had produced The Removalists, had long wanted to make a film of My Brilliant Career, the autobiographical novel written by Miles Franklin (Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin, 1879-1954).
There are two kind’s of “women’s film” – one about women and female issues, and one made by a woman or women. Not all “women’s films” are written and directed by women – plenty of men have made films about women, and vice versa. My Brilliant Career is both of those things. Not only was it directed by a woman, it was produced by one, adapted by a woman (Eleanor Witcombe) from a novel by another. The production designer (Luciana Arrighi) and costume designer (Anna Senior) are female too. In fact, the only major creative positions in this film held by owners of Y chromosomes are the composer (Nathan Waks, with large chunks of Schumann’s piano music) and the director of photography (Donald McAlpine). Women had written, produced and designed films before, but having one direct was certainly novel in Australia. The only precedents were Paulette McDonagh, whose production company McDonagh Sisters had made four films, beginning in late silent days and ending with Two Minutes Silence in 1933; and Turkish immigrant Ayten Kuyululu, who had made a 16mm feature, The Golden Cage, in 1975.
That this is a female film is made obvious from the opening scene, when Sybylla stands in the doorway of her rundown family house, book in hand and announces: “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.” Sybylla is a thoroughly engaging heroine: wilful and spirited. She thinks she is ugly – and others are quick to confirm this – though it takes a special man to sense her beauty. Although she is capable of love – with a young Sam Neill at his most handsome – she is also a heroine who finally turns down the man she loves, preferring her independence. We begin with Sybylla in that doorway, and we end with her silhouetted against a fence against a sunset. This is her story, to be taken on its own terms or not at all. (A final caption tells us that My Brilliant Career, which Miles Franklin had written as a teenager, was published in Edinburgh in 1901. Franklin wrote many more novels, including a sequel, My Career Goes Bung, in 1946. After her death, she bequeathed the funds to establish The Miles Franklin Award, to this day one of the most prestigious literary awards in Australia.)
What this doesn’t convey is how entertaining My Brilliant Career is. Eleanor Witcombe’s screenplay is full of witty lines, and due to the efforts of McAlpine, Arrighi and Senior the film is a delight to look at. But the film is dominated by a performance by Judy Davis that made her a star. She had recently graduated from the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), My Brilliant Career wasn’t her first film but her second. However, not many people had seen High Rolling, two years before.
My Brilliant Career was nominated for eleven Australian Film Institute (AFI) Awards, winning six: Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Direction, Cinematography, Production Design and Costume Design. Judy Davis didn’t win, but was nominated as Best Actress, losing to Michele Fawdon for Cathy’s Child. This seems absurd in retrospect as Cathy’s Child has been all but forgotten. Davis did win two BAFTAs (Best Actress and Best Newcomer) and Anna Senior was Oscar-nominated.
My Brilliant Career has had several DVD editions. Previously in Australia, it was released by Umbrella Entertainment in 2004. The present edition is in Madman’s Director’s Suite line and is much the same, with an extra commentary and remixed sound. In the UK there is a barebones, budget edition, with an identical DVD transfer to the Australian release. I have not seen Blue Underground’s US release, which has a remixed soundtrack.
The original aspect ratio was 1.85:1, confirmed by Armstrong in her commentary. (The IMDB used to claim the film was in 2.35:1, but that error has been corrected.) The DVD transfer has slight black bars at the top and bottom of the screen, so is in 1.80:1 if you wish to be pedantic – the difference is likely only to be visible on a computer monitor. This transfer is quite colourful, but is also grainy. Grain is less of a problem (it’s not unheard of for Australian films of its time) but the undue softness is. There is also a stretch around the twenty-minute mark where the blacks – which are little too strong anyway – take on a blue tone.
There are three soundtrack options: the original mono, and remixes in Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1. (The Blue Underground DVD is also remixed, apparently in Dolby Digital 5.1 EX and DTS 6.1 ES. These may in fact be the same as the tracks on this DVD, which according to my equipment is plain 5.1.) Quite why this film is a candidate for a 5.1 remix is a mystery: the mix has the flatness, especially in some of the dialogue, that betrays its analogue origins. The surrounds are used quite a bit, with wind blowing in the opening scene, to such things as a coach and horses disappearing off the right hand side of the screen and into the surround speaker. Each to their own: if the mono soundtrack had been missing I would have rated the audio as a zero. As is unfortunately usual for this distributor, there are no subtitles.
There are two commentaries on this disc, one by Gillian Armstrong which is carried over from the previous edition. This is a brisk affair, but Armstrong does impart a lot of information about her film, and pointing to a link to another of her films that I hadn’t realised - Little Women (which she directed a version of in 1994) as an obvious influence on Franklin’s novel. New to this DVD is a second commentary, by Dr Felicity Collins, a Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at LaTrobe University, and author of a book on Armstrong’s film. This is more academic as you might expect, drawing out themes but also responding to particular shots and sequences. There’s the occasional factual slip: this wasn’t Davis’s debut.
The rest of the extras are as on the earlier edition. “The Miles Franklin Story” (4:05) is a brief run-through of the author’s life and career, as I’ve summarised above. Two interviews follow, one with Armstrong (8:16) and one with producer Margaret Fink (8:32). Armstrong’s talk covers much of the ground of her commentary, but she also goes on to describe the premiere at Cannes, and her nervousness on the night. Fink describes how she had wanted to make a film of the book for some fifteen years before she did, and how it (and another book by a friend of hers, The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer) contributed to her feminist awakening. Raising the money for the film was not easy, and Fink had to take out a bank loan to pay the scriptwriter. One potential investor offered her a quarter of the budget if Sybylla married Henry at the end – Fink naturally refused. Television footage from the 1980 Cannes Festival (in 4:3, pillarboxed into 16:9, running 2:23. features Armstrong, Fink and Davis.
Also on the DVD are trailers for other Director’s Suite titles, prefixed by the anti-piracy ad you’ve all seen too many times: Playtime, Early Summer, Mon Oncle and Tokyo Story. For those with DVD-ROM facilities, the disc also includes a study guide to My Brilliant Career, both book and film, in PDF format.
My Brilliant Career is a major Australian film – though as Margaret Fink says in the Cannes footage, it’s a universal story that can be enjoyed by anyone. Judy Davis and Gillian Armstrong have gone on to careers both at home and in Hollywood, but this remains among their best work. Madman’s DVD is very good, though the lack of subtitles is regrettable and the sound remixes unnecessary.