“I can’t lose myself in somebody else’s life when I haven’t lived my own yet,” remarks spirited Aussie lass Sybylla Melvyn in My Brilliant Career, a sensitive exploration of feminist themes set in Australia circa the late 1800s. When we first meet her, Sybylla (Judy Davis) lives on a farm with her working-class parents, but she improbably envisions a “brilliant career” as a writer. Sybylla believes her situation has improved when her parents, unable to support her any longer, send her to live with a wealthy relative, Grandma Bossier (Aileen Britton), but Grandma is an imperious snob with little tolerance for Sybylla’s artistic aspirations. The two clash regularly because Grandma wants Sybylla to become a proper young lady, whereas Sybylla insists on speaking her mind, no matter whom she offends.
Meanwhile, Sybylla meets Harry Beecham (Sam Neill), a member of the upper class, and the two embark on a sort of romance—Harry expresses his admiration for Sybylla’s iconoclastic nature, but Sybylla articulates myriad reasons why she’s not ready to marry. One of her hang-ups is a belief that she’s ugly, which causes her to doubt the sincerity of Harry’s affections, and another is her narcissistic assumption that she’s too “clever” (her word) for the rest of the world to understand. Throughout My Brilliant Career, Sybylla makes reckless choices that feed her thirst for experience but complicate every other aspect of her life. For instance, after Sybylla lingers outside during a rainstorm and catches a cold, she gets a scolding from her grandmother: “Now you see the consequences of wild and extravagant behavior.” And yet wild and extravagant behavior is all the heroine craves, even if that means sacrificing traditional notions of happiness, i.e. marriage.
Adapted from a popular 1901 novel by Miles Franklin and directed by Aussie filmmaker Gillian Armstrong (this was her first feature-length fictional project), My Brilliant Career is consistently insightful, restrained, and tasteful, so Sybylla’s stridency never carries over into the tone of the movie itself; rather, Armstrong observes the protagonist with admiring detachment. To its credit, the movie avoids reducing supporting characters to stereotypes, which would have put Sybylla on a pedestal, and as a result, Sybylla emerges as the most interesting kind of feminist icon—a complicated woman who sometimes works at cross-purposes with herself as she struggles to blaze a new path.
Davis, in her first major film role, presents her character’s fierceness without playing for sympathy, and Neill, who already had several films to his credit by the time he made My Brilliant Career, comfortably essays the role of a forward-thinking man unwilling to make demands of a woman. Like so many costume dramas about subtle shifts in social structures, My Brilliant Career will be too dry and slow for many viewers, with lots of scenes of people in evening dress speaking politely to each other. Yet in terms of thematic content and the movie’s place in the history of female-directed cinema, My Brilliant Career is a work of minor but indisputable importance.
My Brilliant Career: GROOVY