Gillian Armstrong and Judy Davis (as the autobiographer, Sybilla Melvyn in the film, a woman named Miles Franklin in real life) made their stunning entrances into directing and acting stardom in this little gem of a film, stunningly photographed in the Outback of Australia by Donald McAlpine (whose genius would 20 yrs. later, be married to another Australian's genius, Baz Luhrmann, to bring us both "Romeo + Juliet" and the extraordinary "Moulin Rouge"), and who here brought the stark beauty of the Bush to life in glorious tones of gold and rust. This was later contrasted with the unexpectedly green, white-linen-ed, lush environment of Sybilla's grandmother's home, where she meets up with the quickly love-struck Harry Beecham (Sam Neill). Utterly charmed by her wit, energy, freedom of spirit, he is quickly bowled over by how different this untamed woman of the Outback is from his genteel friends, all of whom seem to have moved to Australia in order to transform it into England, and themselves into a sort of less costly version of the "aristocracy." He's unprepared for a woman whose early morning greeting consists of a pillow thrown out of a window onto his head, leading to an all-out pillow fight, when most of the young eligible women he knows are too busy learning to sip tea properly to even have the time, let alone the inclination, to chase him into a nearby meadow with a pillow as a weapon. Rolling around in the grass isn't what young ladies do at the turn of the century, even in only relatively civilized Australia, and this rollicking scene sums up both the reasons they get on so well and are so very imcompatible. For Sybilla, her playfulness is that of a free, fun-loving tomboy, while for him, it's more a form of courtship foreplay. He wants to marry her, and spends the whole movie waiting to hear the one word, "Yes."
But Sybilla is not to be pinned down. She feels a sense of her own destiny, and giving that over to a marriage before she's 20 is not even conceivable for her. She wants to write, and her passion to do so is motivated by the deep compassion and despair she feels for the strong, beautiful, loving and prickly but lovable people of her harsh country, whom she sees as wasting their lives in an endless toil of day-to-day labor that she finds both noble and pointless. Her mother's early fade to old age, in stark contrast to her sister, who, having stayed behind with their mother, is still gorgeous and healthy, much to Sybilla's surprise (the difference between the two is emphasized by some cross-cutting). We see how life as a farmer's wife in the harsh Outback, working round the clock, having (and burying) baby after baby, has stretched her mother to a thin, exhausted shell of her former self. This grieves Sybilla, though she also is filled with admiration for her. It's this duality of experience that is at the heart of the story.
Sybilla's grandmother, elegantly played by Aileen Britton, is a gentle woman with a steel backbone, who has, in her own way, survived a challenging life despite the appearance of ease. She and her (other) daughter Helen, set out to transform Sybilla from wildcat to elegant young woman, combing out a mane of hair we would not see again until a few years later when Helena Bonham Carter showed up in "A Room with a View," giving her facials, teaching her to walk and talk like a lady, and trying (mostly in vain) to make this transformation more than skin deep.
As much as Sybilla enjoys the experiences of her new life, she doesn't lose any of the strength with which she was born and which was nurtured on the farm, and when she goes back to her family home she is as much at ease pulling a stuck cow out of the mud as she was in her grandmother's drawing room. Harry finds her here, watching in bewildered admiration from a distance in his perfect clothes and coiffed hair, and again their differences are underscored. It is nearly impossible to see them together, as one can't help but feel that to entirely give up this life would diminish her, yet neither do we want her to live alone and unloved. We are as conflicted as she is.
After a long time in the idyllic home of her grandmother, and after asking for and receiving Harry's promise that he'll give her two years to figure out what she wants and who she is before marrying him, Sybilla is forced to leave in order to work as a governess to pay off her father's debt. She is at first discouraged and resentful (particularly as the family lives in filth and ignorance, yet represent a greater economic health than her own fathers's), then falls in love with the family and gives them everything she has. There's a wonderful scene where she reads to them a story, printed on the newspaper the family has papered the walls with (to keep out the nighttime cold); she runs from paper to paper in search of the next chapter, the whole family mesmerized by her energetic and theatrical reading of the story. There is a wonderful irony in this section, which I will not give away here, but she is sent home, and it's this which leads to her to her return to her father's farm, where Harry finds her, and asks her to marry him. But Sybilla still can't promise--she has decided to become a writer, and begs for Harry's understanding. It's a heartbreaking scene between a strong woman, capable of great love yet unable to yet give up her independence, and a warm, good man who neither wants to compromise the woman he loves, nor his own love for her.
Throughout her adventures, she never loses sight of her goal, and by the end, her pencil-written, painstakingly produced manuscript (several inches high), is mailed off to a London publisher.
Franklin's book was published, and though it was out of print for a long time, I was lucky enough to find a 2nd hand one in a used book store. But perhaps the release of the film onto DVD will stimulate a new printing of the book, too. I recommend it as well. Her writing is down-to-earth and compelling, and clearly fulfilled her goal--she brings to life the people of her country vividly and with great respect and admiration. Both Armstrong and Davis seem to understand and respect how deeply the character of Sybilla lives, and work hard to bring her fully to life. So successful are they that poor Harry Beecham seems really too anemic for her--she lives so deeply that Harry's sheltered life has not grown him up to be as strong and complex as she is. This connundrum haunts her throughout the story.
"My Brilliant Career" was the first film I saw when I moved to Berkeley in 1980 to become a filmmaker, and it was certainly an inspiration. To be able to bring such characters to life and, more importantly to the screen, gave me hope that the art of cinema was still alive and well, despite the massive changes brought about in this country by the new "blockbuster" phenomenon. It was a small film, seen by lovers of cinema first, then, after word of mouth, by everyone, including the Academy, who nominated it. Of course, it had won many Australian and European awards already.
This little film launched three important careers, Judy Davis', Gillian Armstrong's, and Sam Neill's. For these careers, all brilliant, we should be grateful. That it's also a great work of cinematic art is a fabulous bonus, that now everyone will get to appreciate. It was a long wait, but worth it.