Sybylla Melvyn (Judy Davis) always knew her own mind, even when she was in the Australian Outback where her poverty-stricken family had moved at the turn of the nineteenth century thanks to drought, ending up on a farm where life was tough. Not that you could tell this to Sybylla, as she was determined not to live the life her mother (Julia Blake) did, tethered to a hopeless husband and a group of kids. Nope, this girl was going to become a writer, or perform something in the arts at least, she was already composing her first masterpiece and nobody was going to stop her fulfilling her ambition. But that is not to say they were not going to try and put her in her place...
My Brilliant Career was based on a real book, a genuine, thinly veiled item of autobiography under the male pen name of Miles Franklin, which was the best way for our heroine to get published. With this clear from the start, that she succeeds in becoming an author, we were free to concentrate on how such an unconventional woman, especially for her time, was able to achieve this, though there was surprisingly little spent on the creative process. Mostly, as we came to understand, this was an accumulation of experience for Sybylla to inspire her, from a reluctant courtship to being moved around Australia much against her will, all so her family can work out what to do with her.
You come to this kind of expecting how it will go, you may have seen your share of Merchant Ivory films or that kind of costume drama, and you can tell from the nanosecond that Sam Neill, as that suitor Harry Beecham, appears on the screen that he is marriage material. However, as many pointed out at the time, what could constitute a spoiler since it is never referred to in Eleanor Witcombe's screenplay adaptation, was that Sybylla was a lesbian, therefore it was little wonder she preferred her inner life as a writer to any thoughts of being connected to a man by marriage. This aspect was rather glossed over here, in favour of dramatic tension and a substantial character arc.
Sybylla seems a ridiculous personality at times, so out of step with this society that it is frequently comical, and Davis - in a star-making turn - was very funny indeed when the lines dictated. But there was emotion here too: when she is sent to live with her grandmother (Aileen Britton) and broken-hearted aunt (Wendy Hughes) and sees a picture of her mother when she was young and beautiful, it shocks her into crying because for one thing, Sybylla does not consider herself beautiful, and so unlovable, yet for another she has a glimpse into her mother's thwarted soul, seeing that image of her with so much promise that was knocked out of her by a harsh existence dictated by marriage. This was one of the least romantic movies ever made, when you took into account how every woman we see has been brought down by society's expectations.
When Sybylla says she is not going to be part of that, she becomes one of the silver screen's greatest rebels, and this story was guided by a female director who exhibited enormous insight into her protagonist. Gillian Armstrong was that director, at the beginning of a successful career in both fiction and documentary, technically her feature debut though not the first project she had ever helmed, and thanks to this early success which was embraced around the world, has enjoyed a following ever since. She might not have overseen a production with a similar impact aside from her version of Little Women from the nineties, but this and cult classic Starstruck showed she was no one-hit wonder. Classing My Brilliant Career was a romance was deceptive, as it was anti-romance, since this is what chains you to responsibilities away from your dreams, but this illustrated just as well how the creative impulse can be so selfish that it can leave broken hearts in its wake. It was such a rich, funny, moving experience that anyone who thinks they don't get on with costume drama would be pleasantly surprised how engrossing it was. Music by Nathan Waks (with Davis' piano playing).
[This has been released on Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection, and here are the features:
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.]