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.
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: