Loneliness is a terrible price to pay for independence. Sybylla, don’t throw away reality for some impossible dream.
– Aunt Gussie (Patricia Kennedy)

When looking back at the filmography of Australia’s national cinema, it’s almost impossible to overstate the significance of My Brilliant Career (Gillian Armstrong, 1979). Released at the height of the Australian New Wave, the film has been rightfully labelled the country’s first feminist feature film.1 Fittingly, then, it is also notable for launching the career of director Gillian Armstrong, who became the first Australian woman to helm a feature in a staggering 46 years. My Brilliant Career is emblematic of a cultural and institutional shift in the 1970s that saw the creation of the Australian Film Development Corporation (AFDC). Along with the development of a production fund and distribution network, the AFDC established the Australian Film and Television School. Armstrong was a member of the school’s inaugural graduating class along with fellow director Phillip Noyce; subsequent alumni would include key proponents of the New Australian Cinema like Peter Weir and Bruce Beresford. As feminism became a part of the Australian public consciousness, organisations like the Sydney Women’s Film Group (SWFG) agitated for female representation and content. Armstrong acknowledged that “the SWFG had a powerful effect that really did pay off.”2 Crucially for Armstrong, this climate opened up a space where the idea of a female Australian auteur could be imagined for the first time.

Miles Franklin’s source novel was published in 1901, yet both the original text and film adaptation remain vigorously contemporary. The defiant voice of female resistance embodied by Sybylla Melvin (Judy Davis) cuts across the centuries; it speaks to the quest for self-determination (“I can’t lose myself in somebody else’s life when I haven’t lived my own yet.”) Sybylla wants to be a writer, and her quest is analogous with the desire for creative autonomy and recognition, so there is a satisfying symbiosis to the way that Franklin, Armstrong and Judy Davis would all go on to replicate the spirit of this singular, feisty heroine’s journey through their own artistic careers.

In a letter to the publisher Angus & Robertson in 1899, Franklin wrote that “the [novel’s] heroine, who tells the story, is a study from life and illustrates the misery of being born out of one’s sphere.”3 My Brilliant Career takes up this notion of disjuncture, mobilising aesthetic, representational and narrative elements to emphasise ambivalence. The film retains its modern sensibility because of the ways that Sybylla registers as being outside of the dominant order. Outside of her time, she is also resistant to the imposition of class and ascribed gender and social roles. The film form reinforces this resistance in its own refusal to conform to generic conventions and associated audience expectations.

Critic Carrie Rickey has written that My Brilliant Career “was a movie where the woman was the action hero and the man the eye candy.”4 While the film flirts with the generic conventions of the period-romance prototype, it is Sybylla’s drive for self-determination that truly informs its DNA. When Harry Beecham (Sam Neill) is established as the conventional ‘dashing suitor’, the narrative seems to be following a familiar trajectory, adhering to the ‘happy ending as female is “saved” by marriage’ trope. Yet Armstrong’s film language subtly resists formal conventions, recalibrating the relationship between the object and the bearer of the look. When Sybylla looks at Harry, her gaze is actively amorous, the look of a young woman presented with her first tangible object of desire. Anticipating the work of contemporary auteurs like Andrea Arnold and Céline Sciamma, Armstrong thrillingly displaces the proprietary male gaze in favour of the kind of looking that privileges reciprocity.

But it is not just the controlling male gaze that Sybylla destabilises; she also ruptures neatly delineated class boundaries, playfully evading categorisation. She gleefully appropriates stereotypical ‘working class’ language, imitating an Irish maid in her first meeting with Harry, and later singing a bawdy ode to intoxication that charges the static bourgeois space of the parlour with a gratifying ambivalence. The highly performative register adopted by Davis amplifies the political imperative lurking around the edges of the film; when women resist the roles ascribed to them, the patriarchal power dynamics that kept them tethered in place are suddenly contested. Don McAlpine’s elegant cinematography reinforces this sense of an ever-shifting power dialectic. A static mid shot homes in on Harry as he eyes Sybylla lustfully, yet the objectifying gaze is channelled squarely at him; in the foreground, Sybylla is all ceaseless movement, dancing in and out of frame, evading his ‘capture’ and resisting classification yet again.

This restless spirit of resistance formally undercuts the conventions of the period romance, just as our protagonist leads the narrative to a final keynote of uncertainty. As she posts off her manuscript to the publishing house, early dusk descends on an expansive Australian sky. A long shot frames Sybylla from behind, an angular shadow reclining against the paddock fence. She commands the centre of the frame in a balanced image that recalls a photograph; Sybylla is at once a part of this landscape and an ephemeral spectre who stands outside of time. My Brilliant Career’s closing image beautifully distils her ambivalent state of pride and self-doubt. The light is all liminal promise, but does the fence connote a threshold, or does it signal the oppression of further containment?

• • •

My Brilliant Career (1979 Australia 100 mins)

Prod Co: Greater Union Organisation, Margaret Fink Productions, New South Wales Film Corporation Prod: Margaret Fink Dir: Gillian Armstrong Scr: Eleanor Witcombe Phot: Don McAlpine Mus: Nathan Waks Ed: Nicholas Beauman Art Dir: Neil Angwin

Cast: Judy Davis, Sam Neill, Wendy Hughes, Robert Grubb, Max Cullen, Aileen Britton, Peter Whitford, Patricia Kennedy, Alan Hopgood, Julia Blake

Endnotes:

  1. See Annabel Cooper, “On Viewing Jane Campion as an Antipodean” in Jane Campion: Cinema, Nation, Identity, Hilary Radner, Alistair Fox & Irene Bessiere (eds) (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2009), p. 282.
  2. Gillian Armstrong, quoted in Bruce Woodcock, “My Brilliant Career,” Metro 157 (Winter 2008): pp. 102–113.
  3. Miles Franklin, quoted in Rachel Franks, “Miles Franklin,” State Library of New South Wales, https://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/stories/miles-franklin
  4. Carrie Rickey, “My Brilliant Career: Unapologetic Women,” The Criterion Collection website, 2 May 2019, https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/6328-my-brilliant-career-unapologetic-women

About The Author

Gabrielle O'Brien is an award winning film critic and long form writer. In 2019 she received the Ivan Hutchinson award from the Australian Film Critics Association. She has an MA in film studies from Kingston University, London. An unrepentant cinephile, she likes it best in the dark.