My Brilliant Career
Gillian Armstrong | Australia | 1979
1979 Cannes, New York
Aunt Helen (Wendy Hughes) was wrong when she told Sybylla (Judy Davis) that her “wildness of spirit” would get her in trouble her whole life. It’s Sybylla’s independence and defiance that frees her from 19th-century Australia’s repressive, patriarchal society in Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career (1979). A key work in the Australian New Wave film movement, My Brilliant Career was Armstrong’s first feature film and a global success, gaining Academy Award and Palme d’Or nominations. Adapted from Stella Miles Franklin’s 1901 novel of the same name, the film certainly reflected the author’s feminist spirit: key roles in its production were held by women, including producer Margaret Fink, production designer Luciana Arrighi and costume designer Anna Senior.
– Australian Centre for the Moving Image.
Just when it seemed that 1979 was not to be a good year for Australian films, My Brilliant Career arrived to restore confidence and take its place with the six best films this country had produced in the liveliest decade of its cinema history.
Gillian Armstrong’s film is, with one exception, wholly true to the spirit of Stella Miles Franklin’s semi-autobiographical novel, and, in my view, greatly improves on the letter of that exuberant but over-exclamatory work. There are limits to the allowances one is inclined to make for the youth of the author (22 when the book was published in 1901) and she often mistakes girlish gush for zest. But it does have a tough-mindedness that flashes out intermittently and stays with us at the end.
The strength of Eleanor Witcombe’s screenplay is in grasping and holding to the vitality and independence of Franklin’s vision and shearing away its jaunty excesses. She keeps the heroine’s likability and determination, and eschews the irritating slanginess and self-conscious romanticism that clog the book. In doing so, she has given director and star something really substantial and coherent to work on, and has considerably surpassed her own efforts in The Getting of Wisdom.
The film’s explicitness about its heroine is very much Franklin’s. When Sybylla (Judy Davis) says to her suitor: “Give me a chance to find out what’s wrong with the world, with me, with everything”, or; in finally refusing his proposal, “I can’t lose myself in someone else’s life till I’ve lived my own”, the words may be Witcombe’s, but their tone and emphasis are Franklin’s. They might make us wince if the Sybylla, created by the Armstrong-Witcombe-Davis combine, were less attractive and credible; she is a good deal more so than Franklin’s wearying high-spirited heroine.
The film, like the novel, is framed by its protagonist’s autobiographical intentions. Plain white credits on a black background give way to a bleak, lovely Australian landscape with a single corrugated-iron house. As wind and dust blow through open windows and doors, Sybylla, with endearing egotism, begins to read the story of her brilliant career, oblivious of the uncongenial surroundings. The film ends with the early-morning freshness of long shafts of light falling between trees and behind Sybylla as she consigns her finished manuscript to Blackwood’s, Edinburgh. As she leans on a sliprail gate, the audience is left on a note of quiet optimism.
Between these framing images, the film briskly pursues Sybylla’s career as she moves from the genteel poverty of home, to the more gracious comforts of her grandmother’s house, to the opulence of Harry Beecham’s property, Five-Bob Downs, to the slab-built squalors of the McSwats where she goes as a governess, and back home again (if not, one feels, for long). As it recreates these changes, of setting and their importance in Sybylla’s growth, the film emerges as a triumph of miss en scene. It’s not just a matter of that loving attention to detail that evokes the limited pleasure of recognition: Rather, much of the film’s meaning is made in the impact of changing scenes on Sybylla; in the tensions created between her and the places she finds herself in.
In the early scenes at home, for instance, the recreation of the Victorian period through ornately-framed photographs, and the jangling of the piano (as Sybylla plays) against the background of family chores establishes her separateness from — and, indeed, opposition to — her environment. By contrast, and it is a dramatic contrast in that she works towards the expansion of Sybylla’s consciousness, are the alert, economical scenes establishing the comfort and abundance of Caddagat, her grandmother’s home, with its soft interiors beautifully lit (Don McAlpine excelling himself), its more formal, gracious manners, and its superior piano which Sybylla plays, properly listened to this time.
As the camera cuts from Sybylla’s delight in her room (her mother’s o1d one) at Caddagat — luxurious white rugs, pretty wallpaper, canopied bed — to her mother working in her dingy kitchen at home, the audience is not just being asked to admire Luciana Arrighi’s art direction, though they certainly should do so. A point is being made about what the girl has escaped from: that is, from the debilitating poverty that has made her mother (Julie Blake) careworn and complaining, a poverty that cannot find time or place for the life of the kind which Sybylla craves. Caddagat is an opening up of possibilities for her.
The lush natural background, at Caddagat and at Five-Bob Downs, sets off and helps to account for the social graces within. In this gentler, more yielding landscape, the film suggests, it is easier to be cultivated and independent. In contrast with the swirling dust racing through open doors and windows at home, here we get views of verdant gardens lightly beckoning as seen from cool interiors. This kind of natural receptiveness to man is epitomized in an exquisite long-shot: the composition of this scene, in which fence-rails cross the foreground and Sybylla’s red sunshade dominates the dappled, leafy greenness of the middle-ground through which the river runs, achieves a Monet-like impressionism. The shot seems not merely artistic, but about art and people in harmonious settings. The scene has a nicely judged anti-climax as Sybylla chucks the bunch of flowers brought her by the pompous English jackaroo in the river.
The film’s visual style has been stressed here because it is more than a style; it is the chief source of the film’s coherence. The grandeur of the Five-Bob Downs colonnade recalls the shot of the verandah of the country pub to which Sybylla had earlier gone to find her drunken father. However, where the camera passes through the colonnade to yet more elegance within, in the earlier scene it pulls back from the verandah to subvert our notions of the pub’s charm by revealing its ugly squatness.
The striking overhead shot of Sybylla dancing, somewhat wildly, at Caddagat, contrasts with the decorum of the breakfast scene the next day, or with the soft fireside interior at Five-Bob Downs. These later scenes, suggesting the constraints that work on Sybylla, resonate with the recollection of the earlier one.
The idea of Sybylla being wrenched out of the pleasures of Caddagat to go to work for the McSwats is underlined in the way this unpleasant news cuts into the serene image of the girl in the blossom tree. The extent of this break is made in tersely-effective visual terms: “Do her the world of good — make her think of other people,” says Granny (Aileen Britton) complacently in her comfortable sitting-room, and the camera cuts to the filthy McSwat children. The congeries of broken-down huts that is the McSwat farm is caught in a brilliant long-shot that suggests all the worst kinds of slothful incompetence; it is juxtaposed to a prettily-composed scene of Granny and Aunt Helen (Wendy Hughes) on the terrace at Caddagat.
If I am making the film’s procedures sound too schematic, I don’t mean to do so. What I want to point to is the intelligent way one scene is enriched by contrasts or parallels with another; the ways in which recollection of one image informs another. Sybylla’s final meeting with Harry (Sam Neill) at a dam-side, where she is trying to pull a sheep out of the mud, recalls the idyllic punting scene at Five-Bob Downs. Judy Davis makes something very affecting of her efforts to explain why she can’t marry Harry, and part of the tension of the scene is due to our recalling that earlier scene of pleasantness between them. The film’s sense of relationships is also reassuringly, firm-minded. The feeling between Harry and Sybylla deepens satisfyingly from the first meeting which has a tension that’s comic and sexual to the last when, half-reluctantly, she dismisses him.
Much will probably be made of Franklin’s ‘feminism’ here (and of woman director and scriptwriter), but the film’s strength is less to be found in a proselytizing approach to a cause than its sympathetic understanding of a character and a personality struggling to establish and assert itself. The film is therefore equally generous in its treatment of Harry: he is allowed an impressive stillness and maturity that make his love worth having. For Sybylla, this cannot be enough, though she is aware of how nearly it is so.
Gillian Armstrong has chosen her stars well: Judy Davis and Sam Neill create a relationship that is wholly believable in its suggestions of sexuality, in the feelings chiefly withheld, but occasionally expressed in a burst of activity like the dancing at Five-Bob Downs, and in its final emotional inequality.
The one major blot on the film is the absurd pillow-fight between Sybylla and Harry which begins in the house and continues through garden and paddocks. It seems no more than an opportunity for a cameraman’s virtuoso display. If it is meant to suggest a sense of sexual release for the two young people, it is incredible given the stage of their relationship. It has nothing to do with Franklin, or with the rest of this lovely and touching film.
The film’s other relationships are well-handled. Because they bear directly on Sybylla’s growth, they contribute significantly to the film’s coherence. Much of her growth can be traced through her relationships with her mother, her grandmother, her Aunt Helen whose husband has left her, Harry’s Aunt Gussy (Patricia Kennedy), and the slatternly Mrs McSwat (Carole Skinner). What she learns from her dealings with each of these is unobtrusively realized and each has her role in the drama of Sybylla’s growing self-awareness. All these roles are perceptively written and played, but Wendy Hughes is outstanding: reminiscent of the early Geraldine Fitzgerald, she brings the right grace, warmth, and suppressed sadness to Aunt Helen.
Gillian Armstrong has kept her eye, and her mind, firmly on where this film is leading us. It is always sumptuous to look at, marvellously lit and composed, but doesn’t suffer from Creeping Beauty; Nathan Waks’ score, using Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood, helps to create that tone of blended poignancy and resilience which is part of the film’s meaning; and the editing works constantly to reinforce the film’s imagistic patterns. My Brilliant Career is essentially about a girl’s determined movement towards a maturity that will suit her, and almost everything in the film works towards delineating this process.
– Brian McFarlane, Cinema Papers, September-October 1979.
This new (2018/19) digital restoration was undertaken in collaboration with the National Film and Sound Archive in Australia. A new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution on a Northlight film scanner from the 35mm original camera negative. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris. scratches, splices, and warps were manually removed using MTI Film’s DRS, while Digital Vision’s Phoenix was used for jitter, flicker, small dirt, grain, and noise management. The original monaural soundtrack was remastered from the 35mm dual magnetic mono track by Spectrum Films in Moore Park, Australia. The lossless track is excellent. Depth, clarity, and dynamic balance are as good as one can expect from a film of this caliber. Transfer supervised by Gillian Armstrong, Donald McAlpine, Nicholas Beauman, Margaret Fink.
– adapted from Dr Svet Atanasov, blu-ray.com. 10 May 2019.