The novel My Brilliant Career was written at the end of the 19th century while its creator, Miles Franklin, was still a teenager.
Miles, just like her novel's progagonist, Sybylla Melvyn, was living in comparative rural poverty in drought-stricken New South Wales. She, like Sybylla, had determined not to follow her mother's pattern of a bedraggled marriage in continued poverty. She wanted the creative life of a writer. She wanted proto-feminist freedom. She worked hard for it, and she got it.
The book is extraordinary. Direct, tough, amusing though laced with bitter-sweet irony, and with a wild freedom about it. And director Gillian Armstrong managed to include all those aspects in her 1979 movie - aided, of course, by a hugely talented cast and crew.
This really is a seminal Australian movie. I would say it's one of the three or four pivotal movies of this period, the others being Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock, Bruce Beresford's The Getting of Wisdom, and just for something completely different, George Miller's Mad Max. It's impossible to rank them in any qualitative way, though on a purely subjective basis of how often I could manage repeated viewings, this one is at the top of my list.
And that's for so many reasons. There's the exciting sense of discovery, as we see Gillian (then plain Gill) Armstrong direct her first major international movie. There's Australia's own Luciana Arrighi, returning home to create her wondrous production designs - sets and costumes. In her audio narration, Gillian Armstrong notes how, with great generosity, Luciana gave official costume design credit to her key assistant Anna Senior. Those costume designs won an Academy nomination. Plus there's the consummate photography of master-cameraman Don McAlpine and the lyrical music direction of our own Nathan Waks.
Then there's the first major international appearance of Kiwi actor Sam Neill, taking the part of Sybylla's most serious suitor, Harry Beechum. He looks, in retrospect, so young. His acting is so rounded. So mature. What a star.
But talk about star quality and we have to give first place to Judy Davis for her consummately elfish, selfish, wicked, confident, self-doubting, arrogant and always wonderful persona as Sybylla.
This was her first film role; she had just come out from NIDA a year or two earlier. She plays a girl who grows up in the course of the movie from about 14 to 18. She is totally convincing at both extremes. She has that true actor's gift of expressing a total, rounded character from within, so that the personality takes spark and lights you through her eyes. Throughout this movie, just watch her eyes. Watch her eyes the first time Sybylla meets Patricia Kennedy's character, Augusta. Did we really know in 1980 just how remarkable Judy Davis was/is?
Gillian Armstrong notes in her commentary that Judy Davis hated playing this role. She hated the character. She hated her character's arrogance and spikiness. And she hated being dragged back in years to an age when, just like Anne of Green Gables, a naturally beautiful girl was brought by society to think of herself plain ugly. Gillian thinks Judy has refused to watch this movie since its very first screening. It's high time she viewed it again.
Amongst the other fine Australian actors who inhabit this special landscape, I'd give pride of place to Patricia Kennedy, who plays Augusta, with whom Harry Beechum lives. She has a wonderful dry style, warming by degree as her acerbic sense of humour slowly becomes more evident. It's a delicious protrayal.
My Brilliant Career was completed just in time to be entered at Cannes in 1980, and the three girls (sorry, women) - producer Margaret Fink, director Gillian Armstrong and star Judy Davis - went along to be stared at, ignored or even humiliated. Instead they were cheered and feted. Some 80 years she saw her own first novel published, Miles Franklin in turn had launched some very brilliant careers. I think she would have felt very proud.
This is an acceptable widescreen anamorphic presentation, but with some problems which stop it getting the highest rating.
It presents a quite soft image which gives pleasant viewing in its own semi-filtered way, but which just misses on the crisp fine detail DVD is capable of.
The colours are nicely rendered, but the softness does seem to make us lose some detail in some shadowed scenes. I also have some doubts about colour balance; when director Gillian Armstrong mentions how a particular set/costume design was meant to throw into the foreground the blueness of Judy Davis's eyes, we are seeing instead vaguely greeny-brown orbs. Very pleasing indeed, but obviously not quite what was intended.
But, for the most part, there is enough in this transfer to keep revelling in the wonderful world that has been created in this production. There is room for a superior transfer one day, if a better print can be struck, but this is already at the upper end of acceptability.