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Mrs. Melvyn: "To have such a daughter -- useless, plain and godless. What can I do?"
Blue Underground has brought back one of the strongest of the Australian "quality exports" of the late 1970s. Our first overtly pro-feminist American films from a few years earlier tended toward worst-case scenarios like Diary of a Mad Housewife. Even the positive-message An Unmarried Woman conceives of the issue in terms of horrible males, with Jill Clayburgh tormented by an unfaithful crybaby husband and a terminally selfish lover. The delightful Australian film My Brilliant Career short-cuts the political finger-pointing to take up the story of a plain Jane of the Outback who has the temerity to resist the limited course society sets for her. The fact that she's an outspoken plain Jane is a major liability in the eyes of the upper class matriarchs that try to whip her into shape.
My Brilliant Career introduced Judy Davis (who has to work hard to appear plain), Sam Neill and director Gillian Armstrong -- unwisely billed as Gill -- to American audiences. It represents the top end of the Australian cinema boom in the late 70s that included Peter Weir and the Mad Max movies. Blue Underground premiered My Brilliant Career on DVD in 2005 and now brings it to us on Blu-ray.
The story might be the amusing flip side of a women's pocketbook romance. Impoverished daughter of the outback Sybylla Melvyn (Judy Davis) is twenty and plain, and her family needs her out of the house simply because they can't afford to keep her. Sybylla has literary ambitions (or the theater! or the opera!) but her only realistic career path is to become a servant. A reprieve comes when well-to-do relatives take her in; they like her spirit but not her unladylike tendency to sing bawdy songs and drink too much at parties. Aunt Helen (Wendy Hughes) helps her houseguest to feel more feminine, and is puzzled when Sybylla happily repels the advances of a rich but creepy cousin, Frank (Robert Grubb). Sybylla is attracted to handsome landowner Harry Beecham (Sam Neill) but is put off by his popularity among other available girls. Sorting through her oddball feelings and objections isn't easy. When Harry finally proposes, Sybylla asks him to wait ... to allow her to figure out what she really wants from life.
It takes about twenty minutes before we are exactly certain in what direction My Brilliant Career is going. In a sustained long-shot the clueless snoot Frank hops a fence and struts across a field to present Sybylla with a fistful of posies as she sits reading under a tree. As soon as he departs she throws them away to go back to her book. It's the key scene in the show. Sybylla has other things on her mind than proposals, and surely not from a geek like Frank.
The function of the Harry Beechams of this world is to reverse that attitude, and in most cases they do. Harry gets Sybylla's blood moving faster, forcing her to suppress the call of the wild. She's seen what becomes of women who marry for love -- her own mother is struggling on a wind-scow of a farm. Aunt Helen is only a few years older but wastes away like an inert fossil because her husband deserted her without explanation. The family matriarchs sit in judgment over the younger women. They mean well, but none of them has the slightest regard for Sybylla's avowed interests. She doesn't aspire to be a wild single woman, exactly, but she wants an independent creative life of her own. She loves men but would rather avoid the responsibility of being married to one right now. Harry is a dream guy, an exciting man who wants to settle down. That doesn't sound terrible to the confused young Sybylla -- but it's not first on her list of ambitions.
My Brilliant Career is directed by a woman from the autobiography of a pioneering female author. Their Sybylla doesn't hate men and doesn't want to run wild in the city. She just pines for some better alternative to being an accessory in a man's house. It's enough to make Harry feel that he's ruining Sybylla's life just by proposing to her.
Australian Outback movies tend to be about men's men and their wallabies or whatever. The women are even tougher, as evinced by the two stirring versions of Nevil Shute's A Town Like Alice. Sybylla isn't suited to this background. We first see her calmly writing as the rest of her family runs frantic in the face of a massive dust storm. Sybylla loudly protests that she's too good to be a servant. But when she has used up her options (and presumably, the indulgence of her relatives) she must toil in a far lower capacity, teaching the almost feral children of another farmer to whom her family owes money. They're all filthy ignorant, beyond belief. It's a working woman's worst nightmare, and as funny as it is insightful. Sybylla has learned that maybe she's aimed too high and gallantly proceeds to do more than play the guest in someone's house. Her fortune will finally come, but not in the way she expects.
One reason My Brilliant Career works is that it's something unheard of, an anti- romance story. Sybylla's first encounter with Harry is almost a parody of bodice-ripping meet-cutes: she's roosting in a tree like a twelve year-old, and he has to coax her down. Sybylla's sharp personality captures Harry's heart. He has no trouble finding willing debutantes but Sybylla is special enough to have him coming back no matter how rudely she behaves. At one point she smacks him with a riding crop, and means it.
The pre-automobile vision of Australia is indeed an attractive setting. The meadow and hillside backgrounds for the lovers' pursuits and pillow fights make My Brilliant Career look better than Hollywood movies with ten times the budget. Director Armstrong's breakthrough picture led to many international opportunities and she quickly became one of the top two or three female directors. My Brilliant Career also put Judy Davis on the map, although it's reported that the actress hated her appearance in the film. Both women and their film garnered plenty of international prizes. 2
Blue Underground's Blu-ray of My Brilliant Career upgrades this rewarding and insightful show to HD, with mixed results. Bright scenes are dazzling and the extra sharpness is in evidence throughout. But anything at night or darker is affected with dense pebbly grain that's definitely been added in the transfer process. Some of it almost looks like video noise. We get accustomed to this very quickly but it's a serious flaw. 1
The good extras are ported over from the earlier DVD release. Director Armstrong offers a full commentary. American and Australian trailers are on board. Armstrong and her producer Margaret Fink return for separate interviews, and appear in news footage with their new star Judy Davis at the Cannes Film Festival. Davis' answers to press questions mark her as a highly intelligent woman. Original author Miles Franklin is the focus of a career featurette. She comes off as a proto-feminist suffragette who, like her semi-autobiographical fictional heroine, refused to compromise her ambitions. This fun and amorous film is rated "G" yet will surely set many a teenaged girl to thinking about alternatives more personally rewarding than immediately disappearing into marriage.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
My Brilliant Career Blu-ray rates:
1. Note 11.24.09: I've been sent a note of correction by a Blue Underground producer, who informs me that the odd video effect in the dark scenes was not added in the transfer, that the low budget movie had some under-exposed scenes. Fair enough. I made my judgment by looking at a day interior shot featuring a fancy mirror with a black frame. The black parts of the mirror are fields of swimming grain -- video noise -- I don't know what. The flaw is there and impossible to ignore. If this is not a transfer problem -- dark area manifests itself as bright, granular and silvery -- what is it?
2. The movie is apparently a focus of debate on the Australian film ... discussing whether or not nostalgic, non-threatening safe-for-export films were good or bad for the national cinema and progressive filmmaking in general. A fine Shooting Down Pictures article from December 2007 goes deeper into the subject. (I still think the film is strongly feminist ...)
Note received from corresondent Jordan Benedict, 11.21.09:
Hi Glenn: Really good review of My Brilliant Career. It brought back a memory of meeting Gillian Armstrong at the Lincoln Center Film Festival. There was a buzz about MBC and Armstrong at Fox so Lorna Darmour, (Vice President of Creative Affairs in the New York office) and I hotfooted it over to the festival to meet the director before the screening of the film. Whether stage or movie, I've always thought of directors as being calm and collected and in control, so I wasn't quite prepared for the surprising encounter with Armstrong. We found her backstage, wandering aimlessly about while muttering to herself and pulling at her hair. She was a nervous wreck with a classic case of stagefright. We introduced ourselves and, at the mere mention of Fox, she latched onto both of us for support. She was sure no one would like her film. She was convinced she would never get to direct another movie. We walked her around backstage until she calmed down. She made us promise to come back after the screening to "pick up the pieces."
So the film was shown and met with a standing ovation. New York is a tough town when it comes to movies. What pleases filmgoers in that city ain't necessarily what the rest of the country likes. But this was a hit, a veritable hit! Armstrong came onstage to the applause, timidly, and genuinely surprised. She thanked the audience and the organizers of the festival and seemed anxious to get off the stage.
Lorna and I raced backstage and found Armstrong standing alone in the shadows, quiet, calm, and pinching herself to see if it was all real. She greeted each of us with a kiss and apologized for her earlier agitation. We chatted briefly with one another about the magic of movies. Then some of the festival organizers arrived with a bevy of film critics in tow. Lorna and I wished her well and gave her a little push in the direction of the Press, whom she handled with confidence. -- Jordan
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