- Movie Rating -

My Brilliant Career (1980)

| February 1, 1980

About halfway through My Brilliant Career my emotional bond with the film was one of sympathy.  I felt very much for the plight of Sybylla Melvyn, a young free-spirited woman living under the yolk of expectation in Australia of the late 19th century.  The expectation is that she will marry the man that her aunt chooses for her and she will do her duties as a wife and as a woman of good social standing.  I felt that, but then my empathy went to another place when I realized that her story is not limited to the times.

So common is Sybylla’s story, and so current, that it made me sad.  Not in a way of hating the film, but in a manner of identifying with it.  100 years later women still live under similar conditions, still unable to rise to the greater heights that they aspire to, still unable to forge their own destinies.  In that way Sybylla is a heroic figure.  She lives on a farm with her working-class parents and has a dream of becoming a writer – her brilliant career.  Outside the world closes in on her with expectations and requirements.  Inside she wants to measure the world with her feet.

But then her feet are turned in a different direction.  She has hope of exploring the world when her parents, unable to care for her financially, send her off live with rich old Grandma Bossier (Aileen Britton), a haughty, overbearing snob who looks down on Sybylla’s desire to go her own way.  This leads to a rather predictable (though not damaging) clash of wills.  Grandma wants Sybylla to step in line and become a proper social pillar while Sybylla wants to speak her mind.

Then romance comes calling when she meets Harry Beecham (Sam Neill), a man of good social standing who never-the-less falls in love with Sybylla.  He likes her, he likes her spirit, he likes what she represents.  And yet, while they are clearly in love, she confesses that she cannot marry him because she feels that they are not evenly matched.  In reality she questions whether a man of his standing could really be in love with a woman of her plain looks. 

The structure of the film should be repetitive but it isn’t – Sybylla makes silly and reckless social faux pas mainly to fuel her need to experience.  She craves something more than just tea and polite conversation.  She wants a life full of mistakes and misunderstandings and recklessness and indecent behaviors.  She wants to dive headfirst into the strange pools of misbehavior that are opposite what is expected of her.

What is kind of amazing about this film is that director Gillian Armstrong takes this rather familiar idea – pried from a 1901 book by Miles Franklin – and restrains it in a very admirable way.  We know the template of this story but Armstrong and Judy Davis have painted such a specific character that we are interested in what she represents.  She’s a fully realized soul, we can’t always approve of what she is doing but we admire her tenacity to do it.  She is plunged into a world of differing characters – if they were all the same, then she would stand out too much.  A lot of the film is understated and the fact that she mixes so well into the environment provided here is an achievement in and of itself.

 And again, I draw parallels to modern women.  Who couldn’t be a woman in the 21st century and see the plight of Sybylla and not see something of themselves and their desire to break away from the restraints of a rigid and patriarchal social norm?  This story is so modern, so inspiring and so wonderful.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1979) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized