Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The first American-made films with pro-feminist agendas tended to be propagandized worst-case
scenarios like Diary of a Mad Housewife. Even the positive-message An Unmarried
Woman can only conceive 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 all the political finger-pointing and
takes 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 has broken from its usual cult horror
films to apply its DVD production prowess to a classy romantic comedy drama we'd expect to
be trumpeted by Criterion or Home Vision.
Impoverished bush daughter Sybylla Melvyn (Judy Davis) is plain and twenty,
and her family needs her out of the house simply because they can't afford to keep her. She
has literary ambitions (or the theater! or the opera!) but her only realistic opportunity
is to become a servant. Well-to-do relatives take her in; they like her spirit but not her
unladylike tendency to make bawdy asides and drink too much at parties. Her aunt Helen (Wendy
Hughes) helps Sybylla to feel more feminine, and is puzzled when her houseguest 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 ... so she can figure out what she 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 creepy snoot from England hops a fence and
struts across a field to present a fistful of posies to Sybyella, who is 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 and forces her to suppress the
call of the wild. She's seen what married women become. Her mother married for love and is
struggling on a wind-scow of a farm. Her 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. None of them have 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. 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 to a man. It's enough to make
one feel that one is ruining a girl's life 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 version of Nevil Shute's A Town
Like Alice. Sybylla isn't suited to this background; we first see her writing blithely
as the rest of her family runs frantic trying to respond to 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 later toils in a far lower capacity,
paying her father's debts by teaching the almost feral children of another farmer to whom
her family owes money. Sybylla has learned that maybe she's aimed too high and gallantly
proceeds to do more than play the guest in someone's house. Fortune will finally come her
way, but not in the way she expects.
One reason My Brilliant Career works is that it's the anti- romance story. Sybylla's
first encounter with Harry is almost a parody of bodice-ripping meet-cutes: He has to coax
her down from one of the trees where she tends to roost like a twelve year-old. Her sharp
personality captures Harry's heart. Harry 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 an attractive setting and 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 the top two or
three female directors.
My Brilliant Career also put Judy Davis on the map, although it's reported that she
didn't care for the role and hated her appearance in the film. Both women and their film
garnered plenty of international prizes.
Blue Underground's DVD of My Brilliant Career presents this rewarding and insightful show
in a two-disc set that will appeal equally to fans and educators. Ms. Armstrong offers a full
commentary on the first disc, which also contains Australian and American trailers. The grainy
American preview is close to what cable TV copies of the film looked like in the 1980's; BU's
handsome enhanced transfer is a pleasure to watch.
The second disc has separate interviews with Armstrong and her producer Margaret Fink, and
footage of them and their star Davis at the Cannes Film Festival. Author Miles Franklin
is the focus of another featurette, an extra with obvious uses in a school environment when
combined with a DVD-ROM "Teacher's Study Guide." 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 rates:
Sound: Excellent English (Dolby Digital 5.1 EX), English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround),
Original tracks (Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono), English (DTS 6.1 ES)
Supplements: Commentary, director and producer interviews, Film festival footage, featurette on
author Miles Franklin, poster & still gallery, Teacher's Study Guide (DVD-ROM)
Packaging: Two Discs in Keep case
Reviewed: May 31, 2005
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2005 Glenn Erickson
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