screened on Blue Underground DVD in Weehawken NJ December 9, 2007

TSPDT rank #859 IMDb

Gillian Armstrong’s debut feature is a handsome coming-of-age story that is deceptive in its studied classicism. Based on pioneering Australian writer Miles Franklin’s semi-autobiographical account of growing into an independent woman in the outback,  at first glance, this appears to be another period piece where the art direction is as important as the direction (indeed, production designer Luciana Arrighi went on to work with Merchant-Ivory).  The academic lensing by Donald McAlpine flattens the range of settings (from a pigsty of a family farm to a luxurious estate) into a picturesque whole that doesn’t do justice to the uniqueness of each environment in contributing to the heroine Sybylla’s journey of self-discovery.   The lifeblood of the film is Judy Davis’ star-making turn as Sybylla; her performance embodies the captivating confidence of a young girl not knowing any better than to be true to herself. With Davis’ tremendous assistance Armstrong’s understated direction resiliently maintains her heroine’s sense of underlying resistance, despite the pressures of family and marriage imposed on her, as well as her own desire to succumb to romantic ideas of domestic submission.   One review I read faulted the film for not lending enough attention to the career referenced in the title – Sybylla spends little time in the act of writing – but to me, the career being referred to is that of being a woman.

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I would be remiss not to begin this webliography by mentioning the two most valuable online resources on the film.

The first is provided by none other than the Australian Film Commission in their ever-expanding educational resource on Australian cinema, http://australianscreen.com.au/. Among the many multimedia studies of features, documentaries, television programs and other Australian media is their four-part entry on My Brilliant Career. By all means go and visit it first to see the copious notes made by curator Paul Byrd on the film, including analyses of three clips available for viewing as streaming video and even .mp4 download.

A more scholarly but no less exhaustive resource is provided by The Australian Film Database maintained by Murdoch University. The entry provides ample information about the film and gives an overview of its critical and popular reception, including excerpts from contemporary print reviews not found online. The last paragraph summarizes well:

There is a messiness that surrounds Australian national cinema as it seems that with every critic and film maker who believes that My Brilliant Career was a good film there are equally a number of individuals who simply do not like it (O’Regan, 1996:71 & 77). It was not a conservative time when My Brilliant Career was released There were immense changes in Australian society and during a time of a revival of feminism, I have discovered many people considered the film a contemporary even feminist text that examined issues central to life today (McFarlane, 1987:170-171). This was also a time of a growing dis-enchantment in the Australian audience in the ‘nostalgic” film. In light of the second wave of feminism and of the changes in the Australian film milieu, one could wonder how or why was My Brilliant Career so successful (Barber, 1998:6). Perhaps because it was not the same old tired formula of the “nostalgic” film that had been churned out over a decade near to an end. In my opinion, My Brilliant Career, was in fact, a different, unique and distinct film that refused to fit into any one genre. It was a “hybridisation” (Dermody & Jacka cited in O’Regan). It was a glorious example of “international contamination” (Gibson, 1992:81). Perhaps it was this mixture that gave this unassuming film, which had the dis-advantage of originating from a medium sized English language film market (O’Regan 1996:77), the ability to successfully reach out to wide spectrum of individuals from the art-critic to the working class Australian. It even reached American shores.

Gary Couzens of DVD Times offers concise background on the film’s key cast and crew:

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).

Sylvia Paskin for Film Reference.com:

Gillian Armstrong’s film of Miles Franklin’s novel remains remarkably true to the spirit of the original which, almost unbelievably, considering the modernity of its sentiments and the ebullient confidence of its tone, was written by a young woman of 16 and first published in 1901…As Carmen Callil has aptly noted, “Miles Franklin was decades ahead of her time, and My Brilliant Career was written for an audience not yet born. For in the character of Sybylla Melvyn, Miles Franklin created a character who mouths with incredible charm but deadly accuracy the fears, conflicts and torments of every girl, with an understanding usually associated with writers of the 1960s and 70s.” All the qualities which Callil admires in the book have been triumphantly retained by the film which, it might be added, also manages to exclude some of the original’s slightly less attractive qualities, such as its nationalism (which it shared with many of its literary contemporaries) and a certain tendency to let ebullience and exuberance overflow into gush and overly self-conscious romanticism. The dialogue, too, has been considerably updated and “de-literacised,” but the sentiments expressed by Sybylla are very much those that animate her in the novel.

Miles Franklin’s novel can be downloaded in its entirety for free via Project Gutenberg

Review of the novel, with brief comparison of the ending to that in the film, on this blog

Eleanor Whitcombe’s Screenplay can be found online

Reviews

Sybylla, who has been well warned that someone like Harry (Sam Neill) can never marry someone like her, continues to defy social convention, with her flashing eyes and her wicked smile and her propensity for starting pillow fights in the middle of the afternoon. After a very sweet and feisty courtship, she lands Harry anyhow.

However, and unfortunately, she does not want him — she wants to be a writer (hence the title). Never mind the fact that Sybylla has heretofore done her only writing while sitting on a tree branch, with a kitten in her lap. Miss Armstrong suddenly insists on Sybylla’s independence, and tosses Harry to the vultures, and more or less knocks the audience on its ear. Is the viewer being hopelessly old-hat in feeling that Harry — who is handsome and nice, and says he would be delighted to see Sybylla pursue her career — isn’t such a bad bet? Apparently so.

- Janet Maslin, October 6 1979 New York Times review:

The toughest criticism of the film came from Pauline Kael who said the romantic story at the heart of novel and film was somewhat silly. Kael summed it up: Sybylla teases the man all the way through, but, after all this teasing, when he finally proposes she gets infuriated and says that wasn’t what she meant at all. It’s an ‘odd feminist logic’, argued Kael, to have a character who wants to be a writer and yet doesn’t want to get involved in human or sexual or marital relations. ‘She [Sybylla] seemed to think she could only become an artist if she became a hermit which is generally the last way to do it,’ wrote Kael. Is there an ‘odd feminist logic’ at the heart of My Brilliant Career? Is Sybylla a tease? And is her teasing illogical, given her stated ambition to be a writer? Note how Kael has interpreted the film very differently from those who saw in Sybylla a strong and decisive woman, a character who would not allow others to derail her ambitions.

- Peter Cochrane for the Commonwealth History Project

Armstrong does not minimize the difficulties women must face in making choices to reject the status quo. Sybylla is not portrayed as an uncaring, unconcerned, non-sexual female but rather as a sensuous woman with a passion for life, love, and family… When Harry tells her he wants to marry her and asks, “Don’t you trust me?” she replies, “It’s me I don’t trust. The last thing I want is to be a wife out in the bush. Maybe I’m ambitious, selfish, but I can’t lose myself in someone else’s life when I haven’t lived my own yet. I want to be a writer. I’ve got to do it now and I’ve got to do it alone” When Harry asks, “Don’t you love me a little?” she replies, “Yes, but I’d destroy you and I can’t do that.”

Armstrong’s frequent use of fences is extremely effective. Fences are built as control measures, either to keep someone or something contained or to keep someone out of a contained area. These symbols of control and containment guide the film-goer through the entire story. There is an irregular wooden fence in front of Sybylla’s family farm which could be interpreted as a boundary which hems her in. When she arrives at her grandmother’s house, she must pass through a white picket fence and tall archway, indicating she is entering a place of respectability and expected reserve. In another scene, Uncle Julius suggests to Grandmother that Sybylla should be an actress but Grandmother responds that she would rather see her hair shorn off and have her put into a convent. There quickly follows a shot of Sybylla walking along the fences that border the sheep pens—the message clearly indicating that women have little more rights than the lowly sheep. In yet another scene, Armstrong sets Harry and Sybylla on opposite sides of a fence, showing their division of attitude and thought.

- Coralie Cedilia Johnson

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.

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.

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.

- Amanda De Wees for DVD Verdict

Miles Franklin is ready. Australia is ready. Judy Davis is very ready. But My Brilliant Career never seems to leave the starting gate. There’s no denying the care, craft, and skill that have gone into realizing this crucial international moment for the Australian New Wave, but it’s all been funnelled into the externals: the trappings are beautiful, but their omnipresence makes for quite the claustrophobic experience…

From scene one, it’s a showdown between the lead actress and the apparatus of the art department… Because the look is so obsessively classy, it constantly references the authority of the society it reproduces: unsure of how to take its own stand, My Brilliant Career falls back on the pillars of accepted history to bolster its claim. But accepted history stands in the way of Sybella Melvyn. Her days are spent swimming against the current of her time’s mores: she wants to have an artistic career, she doesn’t want a husband, and if she does (big “if”), it will be for love, not convenience. And yet even as everyone in the film senselessly tries to dissuade her from her calling, one doesn’t notice the victim of his or her words. Rather, we notice the important furniture and costumes, giving the enemy physical omnipresence… In another context, this script would have made for a powerhouse, but director Gillian Armstrong’s loss of visual nerve is fatal, making for a film that’s sluggish, deadly dull, and dispiriting in spite of itself.

- Travis Mackenzie Hoover for Film Freak Central

The action and sentiments are familiar to the point of cliche, and there isn’t much life in Gillian Armstrong’s academic direction–she keeps pushing ideas over events, and meanings over emotions. But Judy Davis, as a teenage girl who dreams of transcending her rural background to become a cultivated, independent woman, grants the film much charm and passion.

- Dave Kehr for The Chicago Reader

Other reviews:

Glenn Erickson for DVD Savant

Dawn Taylor for The DVD Journal

Emily Genzlinger for Film-Forward

Matt Peterson for Digitally Obsessed

About Judy Davis:

As a turn-of-the-century rural spitfire with delusions of artistic and literary grandeur, Davis complicates her pointedly feminist heroine by underlining her self-absorption and emotional inaccessibility, qualities that keep her from seeming like just another lovable misfit. According to Armstrong, who contributes an absorbing commentary track to the new two-disc DVD, Davis actively disliked her character, and her refusal to ingratiate herself to some imagined audience shows remarkable courage for an actress just launching her career.

Scott Tobias for the Onion AV Club

The reviewers agreed that Judy Davis was fabulous as Sybylla. She was poised, said one critic, ‘midway between engaging ugly duckling and defiant swan’. Margaret Fink thought she captured ‘the passion and fire in that young girl’. But Judy Davis did not agree. She thought Sybylla was ‘obnoxious’ and she took on the role only because she feared for her fledgling career if she knocked it back. ‘She hated the way we made her look – the way she really is,’ said Fink, ‘which is with her frizzy red hair and so on – and yet Judy alone provided the passion which is in the book!’ She did too. She couldn’t stand to see her face on screen each night when the production team looked at the day’s work, for it was a face full of freckles, a face without make up crowned with a head of frizzy red hair. This was not the usual star treatment. Some nights, apparently, she cried as the team worked over the film footage they had shot that day. Director Gillian Armstrong wanted authenticity and she got more than she hoped for when Davis took her own complexities and anger into the role. Such is the magic of film making. It can, when the stars are right, pour adversity and resistance into a part – enriching the part, embedding them in the character, (in this case Sybylla), and making her seem all the more tormented, powerful, angry and defiant.

Peter Cochrane for the Commonwealth History Project

She has that true actor’s gift of expressing a total, rounded character from within, so that the personality takes spark and lights you through her eyes. Throughout this movie, just watch her eyes. Watch her eyes the first time Sybylla meets Patricia Kennedy’s character, Augusta. Did we really know in 1980 just how remarkable Judy Davis was/is?

- Anthony Clarke for DVD.net.au

About Gillian Armstrong:

“I’m always asked about what the problems are as a woman director, so all my interviews come across as though I’m complaining, and I’m not. Actually, I’ve been treated very well, generally. But we will never achieve true equality until people drop the label “woman” before “director”. I have a different directing style than, say, Kathryn Bigelow or Barbara Streisand, but we have different styles because we’re all different human beings, not because we’re women or men.

One thing I’m very sensitive about – and have been since film school – is this preconception about women film directors. We’re always seen as having to be the little mother on the set, which is the last thing I ever was. Actually, I have wonderful people on my production crew who mother and look after me, and many of them are men.”

- Armstrong interviewed by Mary Hardesty for DGA Magazine

Before the promising debuts of Ann Turner (Celia) and Jane Campion (Sweetie), Gillian Armstrong blazed a trail with My Brilliant Career, launching a brilliant career of her own as an international director. Like Turner and Campion, Armstrong makes films that resist easy categorization as either “women’s films” or Australian ones… Formally, however, the pleasures of her films are traditional ones, such as sensitive and delicate cinematography, fluid editing, an evocative feel for setting and costume, and most importantly, a commitment to solid character development and acting. All in all, her work reminds one of the best of classical Hollywood cinema, and the question of whether her aim is parody or homage is often left pleasingly ambiguous.

- Leslie Felperin for Film Reference.com

From a review of The Films of Gillian Armstrong by Felicity Collins (Melbourne Press, 1999), written by Patrice Petro for Screening the Past:

Collins aims to capture an experience (of looking and hearing, of image and sound) through attentive, intelligent, and probing analyses of individual scenes and privileged motifs. She believes that the most compelling element of Armstrong’s cinema is her “revelatory eye” for everyday objects in interior spaces (and, at the end of her book, she singles out “oranges” that appear somewhere in the scene in most of her feature films). It seems to me, however, that the most remarkable motif of this book (if not of Armstrong’s films) is of a woman’s hands – as evidenced, for example, in Collins’ choice of frame enlargements. In chapter after chapter, and image after image, she singles out and reflects upon the hands of women writers (Sybylla in My brilliant career or Jo in Little women) or the hands extended between women and across generations (Ally and Lilli’s in High tide). More than this, of course, is the “hand” of the director herself, who, much like women in her films, takes matters into her own hands, and makes public and visible an otherwise unremarkable (and often un-remarked) female experience.

Senses of Cinema Great Directors biography by Helen Carter

from the Sydney Melbourne Herald, May 13 2007:

Brilliant spat: filmmakers brawl over Australian classic”
IT was meant to be an event honouring Gillian Armstrong for her brilliant career as a film director, but instead a scathing rivalry has emerged between two of the most powerful women in the Australian film industry.

Armstrong, who made her name directing My Brilliant Career has been attacked by the 1979 film’s producer Margaret Fink for claiming too much creative credit.

“Gillian chose one person for the whole production and that was the film editor, who is of course important,” Fink said.

“But every other single person was chosen by me, including the music, the musical director, the line producer, the cinematographer, the designer, Judy [Davis], Sam [Neill], half the cast, locations … I tell you, she’s got a hide to even mention it.”

Read the full article