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
When I was in high school, I was forced to read Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda, which was at that time the most boring book I had ever read. I’m the kind of guy who will persevere with a book, refusing to stop reading before the end, even if it takes me months and months of grind to get there. But I had to give up on Oscar and Lucinda. More recently I read Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang which is one of my favourite two Australian novels of all time, so who knows if my earlier Carey experience was based on my teenage mind not being ready for it, or the actual quality of the book.
Director Gillian Armstrong brought Oscar and Lucinda (1997) to the big screen, harnessing the talents of Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett along the way. It is an altogether eccentric film, predominately due to the tale it is telling, but thankfully I found it far more enjoyable than its source novel. However somewhat strangely, I felt the film did not inspire that many thoughts or ideas in me about what I thought of it and how to examine it. Which is not to say I do not like the film, it is just that usually I have far too many things to say about a film which I don’t think is the case here. More than that, I felt at a distance from the story the entire time, as though I was not able to access the real core of the narrative or get a foothold into what was going on. The rather absurd story focuses on the two titular characters and what happens when the paths of their lives eventually intertwine. The entire film is a character study of Fiennes’ Oscar and Blanchett’s Lucinda. The narrative takes a freewheeling approach to this study. It begins in the childhood and youth of the two. Sees Oscar’s eventual emigration to Australia and his meeting with Lucinda, brought together by a shared lust for gambling. When it veers into love story territory it just seems to work really quite well. Which is also true of the part that follows which sees Oscar go on quite the physical and metaphysical journey.
Probably the real joy of this film is its cast. Both the leads give terrific performances. Blanchett, in a quite early screen role, is fantastic as the young woman trying to find her way – a fish out of water who eventually grows to be extremely confident in her surroundings. Fiennes is very good at bringing the awkward, almost bumbling at times, Oscar to life. He utilises various tics and eccentricities into the performance but they never distract from it. The film looks incredible, taking advantage of the excellent cinematography to bring fantastic scenery from both Australia and Oscar’s native England to the screen. Thematically, the film sort of touches on a bunch of things without really engaging with any too deeply. Faith and the different kinds of Christianity are explored, as is greed, gambling, sex and the notion of responsibility in sexual relationships, but none of these dominate the film. Part of this may be because in some ways the narrative is a little unbalanced. Some plot points, Oscar’s excommunication from the Church a prime example, are basically overlooked when you feel they could be examined in much more detail.
Oscar and Lucinda is a bit of strange film. Definitely worth checking out for the lead performances, the quirky narrative may well endear itself to you. Though by the same token you may also find yourself rather frustrated by it.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs