27th May2019

‘My Brilliant Career’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Judy Davis, Sam Neill, Wendy Hughes, Robert Grubb, Peter Whitford | Written by Eleanor Whitcombe | Directed by Gillian Armstrong


In the 19th century, on a remote Australian farm, teenager Sybylla (Judy Davis) dreams of a life of culture. Definitely a dreamer rather than a doer, she is shipped around various pockets of her extended family, mostly with a view to finding a matriarch who can curtail her “godless” behaviour. Everyone fails; and when she meets Harry (Sam Neill), she finds a muse for her mischievous energy. The obvious next step is marriage, particularly when you consider that the moneyed Harry is willing to wait years for Sybylla’s hand. But marriage is not Sybylla’s way. She is a young firebrand who is fiercely defensive of her independence. The push and pull between duty and independence is the basis for what becomes a very nuanced and involving character study.

It’s also a dynamic that provokes an odd sensation in the viewer. On one hand we empathise with Sybylla’s plight. However awkward she might be, we want her to be happy, and her happiness lies in solitude, expressing herself in reflection and in writing. Yet as an audience we are also drawn toward the natural Hollywood desire for romantic union – especially with an on-screen couple with chemistry like this.

Davis is exceptional as Sybylla, a woman of unshakeable self-belief. Too bawdy for the wealthy part of her family, and frankly too idle for the poorer part, Davis perfectly captures the animalistic defensiveness of a woman destined to belong nowhere. Opposite, Neill carefully balances charm and smarm as Harry. He adores Sybylla with a passion that transcends status or wealth, but even he struggles with the notion that love and marriage can exist exclusively.

Adapted by Eleanor Whitcombe from Miles Franklin’s 1901 novel, there is lovely clarity in the writing, with none of the wearisome pregnant pausing or rarefied subtextual suggestion which so often sends similar period pieces into a slumber. Led by the painfully honest Sybylla, we instead have people talking with often desperate directness, whether discussing the nature of love, or honour, or what it is to be a woman in this world.

Sybylla is warned, “Loneliness is a terrible price to pay for independence.” Trouble is, she sees it as a binary choice. To its credit, the film doesn’t fall firmly on either side. It simply depicts the isolation of a person – particularly a woman – making such a decision. It’s a sacrifice Sybylla is willing to make to realise her ambition, which is not for status or material things. She yearns for pure individual expression, and her goal is to protect her absolute independence. Like all trailblazers, she can appear ungrateful or selfish, but that’s on us. The final shot of Sybylla says it all: Like a scarecrow, standing proud and alone, a powerful figure who protects her world by scaring the predators away… along with everyone else.

Luciana Arrighi’s production design is sumptuous. Whether it’s the rustic farmhouses or the magnificent stately homes, everything looks worn and lived-in, with a level of detail that gives real depth to every frame. It’s an authenticity that extends to the rough-hewn costumes and the virtual absence of makeup, particularly on the wonderfully honest face of Sybylla. Donald McAlpine’s fluid camera is always panning or tracking or zooming, only falling still for the staid world of the suffocating drawing rooms. Some shots are like paintings: Sybylla reading in a tree amongst kittens, the ground beneath her smeared with the purples of spring.

This is a different kind of Australia from other notable films of the Australian New Wave. Sybylla’s New South Wales is green and luscious, a far cry from the apocalyptic, dusty expanses of Wake In Fright or Mad Max, and more akin to the verdant gardens of Picnic At Hanging Rock. My Brilliant Career is lower-key than any of those ‘70s classics, but no less powerful. An almost complete lack of a musical score lends the film an impressively unsentimental edge, which in the end means that the lasting emotional resonance feels thoroughly earned.

Director-Approved Special Edition features include:

  • New, restored 4K digital transfer, approved by director Gillian Armstrong, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
  • Audio commentary from 2009 featuring Armstrong
  • New interview with Armstrong
  • Interview from 1980 with actor Judy Davis
  • New interview with production designer Luciana Arrighi
  • One Hundred a Day (1973), a student short film by Armstrong
  • Trailer
  • Plus: An essay by critic Carrie Rickey

My Brilliant Career is out on Criterion Blu-ray from today, 27th May 2019. Order yours here.


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