on 26 July 2004
What a wonderful film this is- out on DVD at last - if you haven't seen it - you are in for a treat. The story of the feisty and talented Syblla Melvyn(Judy Davis), stuck on a impoverished farm in 1900 outback Australia- her dreams of fame, her clashes with established mores, her heart breaking romance with the the wealthy and handsome Harry Beecham (Sam Neill) - are beautifully captured. Every thing about this film is as good as I remembered it - every scene is taut and clear- screenplay the score is evocative and memorable, the lush and beautiful settings, the excellent acting, especially Judy Davis and Sam Neill, would appeal to anyone who loves period films, getting of wisdom type films, just about anyone. A wonderful screen play by Eleanor Whitcombe brought to life by the director Gillian Armstrong
on 24 June 2015
I was disappointed by Gillian Armstrong's movie "Charlotte Gray," a romantic thriller that never quite lived up to its promise, despite a strong cast. Her breakthrough movie from 1979, "My Brilliant Career" is much better, for it manages to avoid both romantic and feminist cliches and has at its center a superb performance by the young Judy Davis, in what was her breakthrough as well. It might be Armstrong's strongest film, just as "Picnic at Hanging Rock" might be the strongest film of another Australian director, Peter Weir. Part of the success of both movies is the specificity of the Australian setting -- not just the historical setting (1890's for both) or the natural setting, which is well captured by both, but the social setting too, with its strange juxtaposition of the outback, reminiscent in some ways of the American frontier, and the remnants of the colonial social system and its manners. In the outback, where her family scrape to make a living in a harsh environment, Sybylla Melvyn (Judy Davis) dreams only of having a "brilliant career" as a writer. In her late teens, she is sullen, unpleasant, plain -- all in all, "difficult," and her parents pack her off to her maternal grandmother, who lives in comfort in what looks like an English country house, where, over time, some rough edges are smoothed, but Sybylla never loses her sense of wanting to have her "career," and she is quite outspoken about it. Her grandmother and Aunt Helen want her to make a "good" marriage to a rich neighbor, Harry Beecham (Sam Neill), and Sybylla finds herself drawn to him, for he seems to love her despite (or perhaps because of) her independence and unconventionality.
Sybylla, if she is to marry at all, will marry only for love, and her aunt warns her that both she (Helen) and Sybylla's mother did that -- with disastrous results. Her mother is living a hardscrabble life in the outback, with an ever-increasing family. Helen has been deserted by her husband and now (in her words) bears "the shame of being neither wife, widow, nor maid." Sybylla's response is a great moment -- though a quiet one, when she asks Helen why SHE feels ashamed. The conversation stops there, but the point is made. Harry proposes marriage shortly thereafter, and Sybylla asks for two years. However, the increasing financial difficulties of Sybylla's family force her back to the outback to work as a teacher of the children of her father's landlord -- a rough and ready bunch (the whole family), but, it turns out, not unsympathetic ones. And by seeing her do this work, which she is compelled to do, and doing it with better grace than the work she did as a teenager at the beginning of the movie, we see Sybylla facing and dealing with the realities of her parents' lives in a mature way. Significantly, she did NOT, at the time of her family's difficulties, rush to Harry and the security that marriage to him would have offered -- a point that the movie, with great restraint, never brings up. That Sybylla doesn't think of it either tells us all we need to know about her strength and integrity, for all her difficult-ness. Shortly after she leaves her teaching job, Harry renews his proposal . . .
Isn't the movie a "romance" when all's said and done? Well, while the erotic undercurrents are there, so also is the recognition, explicit on Sybylla's part, that marriage and sex mean children and perhaps (c.1900) a lot of them, and having children has consequences for one's freedom and energies. It's a strength of the movie not only that Sybylla articulates that point but that we see, in her mother's situation and in the situation of the landlord's family, what having children, in that place and at that time, entails. All of this is made clear without heavy-handed preachiness about feminism or creativity, and it makes "my Brilliant Career" an unusual romance. Also unusual is the refusal to sentimentalize, by inflation, Sybylla's talent. The movie doesn't assume that it's all that great. The effects of Armstrong's placing of the action in settings that are very clearly distinct -- the outback, the grandmother's house, Harry's farm -- speak for themselves, and Davis's performance is very much in tune with what these settings signify. This is an intelligent and engaging movie, anchored by a great performance.
Spoiler alert! I discuss the ending in these comments. Proceed
at your own risk!
A lovely, beautifully acted first feature that launched both Judy
Davis, who is amazing in this, and director Gillian Armstrong.
Its lost a little something revisiting it after all these years. While
it's feminist ideals are inspiring and handled with complexity, there's
a certain lack of emotion to it. We don't really get the deep
bitter-sweetness of choosing loneliness over loss of self.
Also, that the film forces that choice at all seems a bit disingenuous.
Nothing about Sam Neil's character suggests he would repress our
heroine - indeed he clearly loves her for the free spirit she is. To
really have her need to make an either/or decision 'work' we'd need to
go further into their relationship and her psychology.
Last, a number of the supporting roles tend towards clichés about both
the upper and lower class. And that oversimplifying takes something
away from the complex character Davis builds.
But all that said, there are beautiful images and magical moments. It
just didn't quite hold up to my memories of first seeing it 30 years
ago. But if you've never seen it, you still certainly should.