My Brilliant Career

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Australia, 1979

Director: Gillian Armstrong

Production: New South Wales Film Corporation and Margaret Fink Films; Panavision, Eastmancolor; running time: 100 minutes; length: 9,005 feet. Released 1979.

Producer: Margaret Fink; associate producer: Jane Scott; screenplay: Eleanor Witcombe, from the novel by Miles Franklin; assistant directors: Mark Egerton, Mark Turnbull, Steve Andrews; photography: Don McAlpine; camera operators: Louis Irving, Peter Moss; editor: Nicholas Beauman; sound editor: Greg Bell; sound recordist: Don Connolly; production designer: Luciana Arrighi; art director: Neil Angwin; costume designer: Anna Senior; music: Nathan Waks.

Cast: Judy Davis (Sybylla Melvyn); Sam Neill (Harry Beecham); Wendy Hughes (Aunt Helen); Robert Grubb (Frank Hawden); Max Cullen (Mr. McSwat); Pat Kennedy (Aunt Gussie); Aileen Britton (Grandma Bossier); Peter Whitford (Uncle Julius); Carole Skinner (Mrs. McSwat); Alan Hopgood (Father); Julia Blake (Mother); Tony Hughes (Peter McSwat); Tina Robinson (Lizer McSwat); Aaron Corrin (Jimmy McSwat); Sharon Crouch (Sarah McSwat); Robert Austin (Willie McSwat); Mark Spain (Tommy McSwat); Simone Buchanan (Mary Anne McSwat); Hayley Anderson (Rosie Jane McSwat); Marion Shad (Gertie); Suzanne Roylance (Biddy); Zelda Smyth (Ethel); Amanda Pratt (Blanche Derrick); Bill Charlton (Joe Archer).



Tulloch, John, Australian Cinema: Industry, Narrative, and Meaning, Sydney and London, 1982.

McFarlane, Brian, Words and Images: Australian Novels into Films, Richmond, Victoria, 1983.

Hall, Sandra, Critical Business: The New Australian Cinema inReview, Adelaide, 1985.

Moran, Albert, and Tom O'Regan, editors, An Australian FilmReader, Sydney, 1985.

Mathews, Sue, 35mm Dreams: Conversations with Five Directorsabout the Australian Film Revival, Ringwood, Victoria, 1987.

McFarlane, Brian, Australian Cinema 1970–85, London, 1987.

Collins, Felicity, The Films of Gillian Armstrong, St. Kilda, 1999.


Fink, Margaret, and Gillian Armstrong, in Cinema Papers (Melbourne) March-April 1979.

Metro, Spring 1979.

Variety (New York), 23 May 1979.

McFarlane, Brian, in Cinema Papers (Melbourne), September-October 1979.

Adair, Gilbert, in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), February 1980.

Wallace, Melanie, in Cineaste (New York), Spring 1980.

Image et Son (Paris), November 1980.

Oakes, Philip, in Listener (London), 23 February 1984.

Arnold, Gordon B., "From Big Screen to Small Screen: My BrilliantCareer Directed by Gillian Armstrong and Starring Judy Davis," in Library Journal (New York), vol. 114, no. 9, 15 May 1989.

Bertrand, I., "Woman's Voice: The Autobiographical Form in Three Australian Filmed Novels," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), no. 2, 1993.

"Armstrong, Gillian," in Current Biography (Bronx), vol. 56, no. 8, August 1995.

Wood, Gaby, "My Brilliant Career Down Under in Film and Feminism," in New Statesman (London), 27 March 1998.

* * *

Gillian Armstrong's film of Miles Franklin's novel remains remarkably true to the spirit of the original which, almost unbelievably, considering the modernity of its sentiments and the ebullient confidence of its tone, was written by a young woman of 16 and first published in 1901. That it was not reprinted until 1966 can be explained partly by the fact that it was withdrawn by its author, who was annoyed at the "stupid literalness" with which it was taken to be her own autobiography. However, the fact that the novel's sequel, My Career Goes Bung, was rejected by publishers as too outspoken and not published until 1946, also suggests that, even if it had not been withdrawn, My Brilliant Career would have stood little chance of establishing itself in the male-dominated pantheon of "great" Australian literature at the turn of the century.

The story centres on Sybylla Melvyn, a young woman living with her parents on a remote farm in the bush. She dreams of living a more intellectually and culturally rewarding life, and is writing a memoir. When she goes to stay on her grandmother's estate at Caddagat things improve somewhat, and she is also courted by Frank Hawden, a rather fatuous English immigrant, and Harry Beecham, a young landowner. She is attracted by the latter, and is faced with the choice of trying to pursue a "brilliant career" or getting married.

There are, of course, parallels with Miles Franklin's own life here—the dusty, arid Possum Gully is clearly modelled on Stillwater, the smallholding to which her family moved from a far more attractive cattle station in the mountains of New South Wales; and Caddagat is a fictional version of Talbingo, where her maternal grandmother lived and with whom she went to stay for a few years of her adolescence. But these are incidental details, and the real importance of both novel and film lies in their acute delineation of a young woman's feelings at a transitional moment in her life. As Carmen Callil has aptly noted, "Miles Franklin was decades ahead of her time, and My Brilliant Career was written for an audience not yet born. For in the character of Sybylla Melvyn, Miles Franklin created a character who mouths with incredible charm but deadly accuracy the fears, conflicts and torments of every girl, with an understanding usually associated with writers of the 1960s and 70s." All the qualities which Callil admires in the book have been triumphantly retained by the film which, it might be added, also manages to exclude some of the original's slightly less attractive qualities, such as its nationalism (which it shared with many of its literary contemporaries) and a certain tendency to let ebullience and exuberance overflow into gush and overly self-conscious romanticism. The dialogue, too, has been considerably updated and "de-literacised," but the sentiments expressed by Sybylla are very much those that animate her in the novel.

All credit must go here to Judy Davis, whose performance makes Sybylla utterly convincing and never allows her effervescence and high spirits to become wearying or trying. The only problem, perhaps, is that in her hands Sybylla comes across as so attractive, capable, and accomplished that it sometimes becomes difficult to understand the oft-mentioned fact of her "plain-ness" and the various other negative judgements passed upon her by the other characters. Gillian Armstrong's mise-en-scène is also a triumph, not simply in its loving attention to period detail but in the way in which it is used to comment on or reflect Sybylla's feelings, and in particular her growing consciousness of herself as being different from those around her and as destined for higher things. Particularly important in this respect are the contrasts between Possum Gully and Caddagat, the latter making Sybylla more aware than ever of the possibilities of life beyond the bush. Significantly, when Sybylla plays the piano at home, with noone paying any attention, the effect is decidedly jangly, whereas at her grandmother's, with an appreciative audience, the change in style is most striking. At the same time, however, the elegance of some of the scenes at Harry Beecham's mansion suggest not simply the lifestyle which Sybylla desires but also the kinds of constraints and limitations that she fears may come with it.

Scenes such as these work extremely effectively to communicate the sense that Sybylla is still in the process of developing and maturing, that she is still trying to decide on her role in life, and is subject to all sorts of contradictory pressures, both internal and external. Important here, too, is the characterization of Harry, who is portrayed very much as a potential soul-mate and worthy partner, thus facing Sybylla with a very real and difficult choice with which the spectator can clearly emphathise. Indeed, although nothing actually "happens," some of the scenes between Sybylla and Harry contain a distinct sexual charge.

My Brilliant Career has been "rediscovered" as something of a proto-feminist text, which it undoubtedly is, but it is also very much a Bildungsroman which works remarkably well on both a particular and more general level. Like the best of all such works in the genre it is both poignant and amusing and both of these qualities have been well served by Armstrong's meticulous and occasionally sumptuous mise-en-scène, Judy Davis's splendid performance, which never goes over the top, as it so easily could, and a score which makes poignant use of (what else?) Schumann's Scenes from Childhood.

—Sylvia Paskin