Women in Film: Gillian Armstrong’s ‘My Brilliant Career’

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Women in Film is a weekly column that examines films directed by women. All films selected for this column are currently streaming online. To view other entries into this column, be sure to click on the tag “Women in Film.”

My Brilliant Career

Gillian Armstrong has built her career on telling the stories of headstrong, fierce women who subvert expectations and forge their own paths. One of her earliest such projects was the 1979 adaptation, “My Brilliant Career.”

Set in the sprawling Australian Outback in 1897, Armstrong’s film manages to feel both epic and intimate at the same time. Sweeping landscapes paint a portrait of characters that are confined by expectations, even when the world is literally laid at their feet.

Judy Davis is Sybylla Melvyn, a stubborn and ambitious young woman with eyes on a career as a writer. Sybylla is seemingly the only one in her family or community that scoffs at the notions of marriage and family. She may toy with the idea of settling down, but only because the man who catches her attention comes in the dashing form of Sam Neill. The actor plays Harry Beecham, a local landowner who is quite taken with Sybylla. He is drawn to all the qualities that make her different from her peers.

“My Brilliant Career” resonates for many of the reasons another of Armstrong’s later films is such a classic. Like her 1994 adaptation of “Little Women,” this is the story of a woman who refuses to be what everyone expects her to be. Sometimes she appears to act against her own interests, but no one knows Sybylla (or Jo March, for that matter) as well as she knows herself. The truth is that her desire to be a writer is stronger than even her attraction to a handsome man who loves and admires her.

Sybylla’s desire for independence is further accented by the relationships around her. Hoping to turn her into a woman of grace and dignity, her parents send her to live with her grandmother. But when Sybylla digs in her heels and rejects any notion of courtship, her grandmother equally digs in and determines to compel her into a relationship. Her Aunt Helen, who only wants to protect Sybylla from a life of solitude, encourages her to “marry for friendship, not love.” It is a compromise, and this is a woman who is not interested in compromising her aspirations.

“My Brilliant Career” is set in 1897 and was released in 1979, but it is every bit as relevant in 2019. One way this story particularly resonates is with the paradox of Sybylla’s desire to build a career and the sadness she feels by disappointing a man whose company she quite enjoys.

“Loneliness is a terrible price to pay for independence,” counsels Grandma Bossier. For some, this is true. But to Sybylla, independence is the price for perceived happiness.

Gillian Armstrong proves the need for female directors in the way she tells the story of Sybylla Melvyn. Together, Armstrong and Davis, and screenwriter Eleanor Witcombe, present a woman who may not like her crooked nose or her wild hair, but she is confident in who she is. When men show her attention, she doesn’t misunderstand or fail to notice. And she doesn’t ignore her own feelings either. She simply wants more than a traditional life can offer.

“My Brilliant Career” is a beautiful portrait and Gillian Armstrong is a beautiful artist. This is the start of a truly brilliant career from a filmmaker who has given the world lovely stories of women to admire. She went on to build a library of such women, but it started with Sybylla Melvyn.

My Brilliant Career” is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel. Criterion has also just released the film on Blu-ray.

Have you seen “My Brilliant Career?” Share your thoughts about the film in the comments below!

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