Saturday, July 10, 2021

My Brilliant Career

Movie Name:
My Brilliant Career
Year of Release: 1979
Director: Gillian Armstrong
Starring: Judy Davis, Sam Neill, Wendy Hughes, Robert Grubb, Max Cullen, Peter Whitford, Aileen Britton, Patricia Kennedy, Julia Blake, Alan Hopgood
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on HBO Max

Synopsis and Review:
After directing a series of shorts, Gillian Armstrong made her feature directorial debut with the adaptation of Miles Franklin novel, "My Brilliant Career". The film, which takes place in Australia in the late 19th century, follows the story of the young and indomitable Sybylla. She lives on her family's country farm, but dreams of having a more artistic and fulfilling life. Unable to deal with her aspirations and behavior, her parents send her to live with her wealthy grandmother. She soon finds herself the target of two men's affection, Frank Hawdon, whom she quickly ignores, and Harry Beecham, a young landowner, whom she eventually falls in love with. As their relationship becomes the target of rivals and her family, Harry eventually proposes, only for Sybylla to turn him down. Turns out he is also in a somewhat precarious financial situation, and they both agree to take some time. Sybylla is suddenly sent to live and work as a governess for a family who neighbors her father's farm, and whom he is indebted to. While working in harsh conditions she does manage to teach the children and overcome considerable obstacles, until Harry reappears again. Sybylla has to decide what she wants to do with her life and relationship.
Gillian Armstrong's feature, came out around the same time as Peter Weir's initial films were starting to make waves (Weir's "Picnic at Hanging Rock" came out in 1975, and "The Last Wave" in 1977), the same going for George Miller (his debut, "Mad Max" premiered in 1979), in what became known as the Australian New Wave. Similarly to Jane Campion, whose short features in the 1980s were her launch pad for her tremendous debut with "Sweetie",  Gillian Armstrong also started her career with a series of shorts, going back to 1970. "My Brilliant Career", her debut, managed to capture the energy and complexity of its heroine, a young woman who was trying to find her voice in a society that didn't quite know what do with it. The film observes and details the interactions of several characters in that time period, with a particular focus on the lives of all these women who are part of Sybylla's family, all of whom have tried to have their personalities and expectations somewhat preserved, no matter the disappointments and challenges they have faced. There are echoes of Isabel Archer from Henry James's "The Portrait of a Lady" here, though Sybylla's fate is more driven by her artistic ambitions. It's an interesting feature, which gives some dimension to Judy Davis's Sybylla, while leaving Sam Neill's Harry somewhat unexplored, the same going for the additional supporting characters. The cast does succeed in bringing this array of characters to life, with Judy Davis, Sam Neill, Wendy Hughes and Aileen Britton all crafting memorable performances. While not as engrossing as the work Jane Campion did in capturing the life of Janet Frame in "An Angel at My Table", it's nonetheless a solid view at the life and spirit of a woman trying to thrive in a period where that voice, that ambition, was almost always perpetually silenced. Worth watching.