Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career (1979) is based on the iconic Australian novel of the same name written by Miles Franklin in 1901. It is one of those books that you are forced to read for school or uni that you dread, but then end up really quite liking (well at least that’s what happened for me).
This film adaptation may be one of the best reflections of a literary character onscreen that I have come across. The film, like the book, immediately inserts the writer into the action. The film is a character study, never wavering from the focus on Judy Davis’ Sybylla Melvyn, who may literally be in every single scene of the film. Both the writing and the performance of this character beautifully capture her sass and aspirational nature, as well as the rebellious streak and “illusions of grandeur” that she holds as dear to her as any other aspect of her personality. Some of this sounds cliché, but this is a rare idealist character that does not exist solely based on shallow braggartism. Rather that is balanced, undermined and heightened by the really well drawn element of insecurity and uncertainty of a person that age. Sybylla herself refers to herself as a “misfit and a larrikin”, her persona as an artistic dreamer content in her own world, never overwhelms her with an unnecessary self-seriousness. The film is certainly not plot-dense or dripping with incidence. It does have a perfunctory love story going on as well. Perfunctory in the sense that it really exists only to better illuminate the main character and what is most important to her. But it does that very well and the line of “I’m so near loving you … but I’d destroy you” perfectly captures the journey of the character, her coming to realise her shortcomings and how to best interact with those around her. Something she has been experimenting with and often failing at, throughout the film.
The performance of a very young, almost unrecognisable, Judy Davis is essential to the main character and by extension the film. There is a twinkle in her eye that so perfectly reflects how readers would have imagined the character and a cheek to her line delivery that charms no matter what she is saying or how she is behaving. In comparison, everyone else in the film exists solely to be acted upon by Sybylla, to bask in that force of nature. So the good performances of folks such as Sam Neill, Wendy Hughes and Robert Grubb are a little overwhelmed by the central character.
Thematically My Brilliant Career is a distinctly feminist film. Sybylla has a sense of social justice that she is not afraid to share with anyone around her. Perhaps even more than gender though the film is concerned with classism. Sybylla is righteous about the poor and their importance to society. This extends to an exploration of unnecessary class structures and high vs low culture, in particular the stuffiness of the former versus the ingenuity of the latter. Like everything, the thematic exploration serves to embellish the character of Sybylla, to tell the audience something new and interesting about her.
Verdict: My Brilliant Career really is a genuinely exceptional character piece. Sybylla is such a fleshed out and genuine character, whose journey is supported and reflected by a quite decent love story underneath. Pint of Kilkenny