"My Brilliant Career," opening today at the Key in Georgetown, is the most attractive and appealing of the new Australian movies.
A beautiful production, distinguished by a vivid sense of period, locale and characterization, "Career" appears certain to make the reputations of several new talents. Foremost is Judy Davis, blossoming out of nowhere in the role of an impulsive, ugly-duckling heroine. Equally impressive is the deft young director, Gill (short for Gillian) Armstrong, whose first feature establishes her instantly as the most sensitive and accomplished woman director in the English-speaking world.
A portrait of aspiring artist as a wild colonial girl, "My Brilliant Career" derives from an autobiographical novel, published in 1901 when the author, Miles Franklin, was still in her teens. The heroine, Sybylla Melvyn, is the eldest daughter of a hard-pressed ranching family in the bush. Her literary ambitions and dreams of fame are yearnings that her flinty, haggard parents are incapable of encouraging.
As the story begins, her pride and dreamy self-absorption have become intolerable burdens. The opening sequence, depicting Sybylla so preoccupied with her composition that she fails to notice a gale lashing the dusty, isolated Melvyn spread, sets a pattern of juxtaposing a roughhewn girl with finer instincts against settings that seem to defy her aspirations. Armstrong and cinematogpaher Don McAlpine systematically isolate Davis against picturesque horizons or within densely textured social settings. She looks indigenous, but she stands apart.
In bed at night the Melvyns (Alan Hopgood and Julia Blake) reach pessimistic conclusions about Sybylla's prospects. "Same as all your family," her father remarks. "Illusions of grandeur." Her mother harmonizes, "Such a daughter: plain, useless and godless."
For the good of Sybylla's soul and the family's meager resources, Mrs. Melvyn can see no solution but to hire her out as a general servant. Luckily, Sybylla is rescued by her maternal grandmother (Aileen Brittain), a widowed pillar of the gentry who offers to take in the misfit, lest "she be in danger of forming ties beneath you."
Moving from the parched homestead to a spacious mansion in verdant hill country, Sybylla finds the surroundings and the company more stimulating. Although her grandmother and aunt (Wendy Hughes) view Sybylla's restlessness with disapproval, they have the means and leisure to set an example of genteel Victorian femininity.
The change in settings reveals that Sybylla's mother either married beneath herself socially or into hard luck. And Aunt Helen, her younger sister, confesses that she too has been a victim of "love marriage," abandoned by a husband who "left me to live the rest of my life in the shame of being neither wife, widow or maid."
Despite their attempts to reform her behavior and domesticate her aims, Sybylla's relatives are invigorated by her presence. "Life round here will certainly be uneventful," complains an indulgent uncle (Peter Whitford), upon learning that Sybylla must take a job as a teacher to a brood of illiterate brats on a ram-shackle homestead in the outback to get her parents out of hock.
Sybylla's spunk has an immediate charm for men. While residing with her grandmother, Sybylla attracts the most eligible young man in the vicinity, an earnest rancher named Harry Beecham (Sam Neill). For her part, she can't help provoking him, and one playful act inspires a peculiarly enchanting "love scene," in which the young people sustain a pillow fight across the grounds of Harry's estate, known as Five Bob Downs.
Curiously, Sybylla and Harry prove such a convincing romantic match that one is thrown into confusion by the resolution of the story, which insists that the heroine's ambitions and affections must remain forever in conflict.
Sybylla complains that "I can't lose myself in somebody else's life when I haven't lived my own!" But Eleanor Witcombe's trim and frequently eloquent screenplay does justice to the contradictory viewpoint, articulated by Harry's mother: "Child, it's natural to want to be a part of someone. Loneliness is a terrible price to pay for independence. Don't throw away reality for some impossible dream."
In opposing a literary vocation with young love, the filmmakers inevitably (though perhaps unintentionally) formulate a stronger case for love. Writing is a notoriously unphotogenic calling. (Probably unnatural too, but that's another issue). Sybylla's literary passion quickly resolves itself into the occasional insert of the heroine coming with pen and notebook. These fleeting reminders are not remotely as dramatic or affecting as the scenes tracing Sybylla's affair with Harry. Perversely, "My Brilliant Career" portrays one of the few current screen romances that look authentic, only to spurn it for an intangible devotion to literature.
At the beginning of her career, director Armstrong appears to work with a warmth and assurance that one associates with certain Hollywood filmmakers at the height of their stylistic maturity: William Wyler with "Friendly Persuasion," George Stevens with "Giant," Fred Zinnemann with "The Sundowners." The rich period evocation and intimate affectionate social interplay -- clarifying class distinctions while respecting the individuality of every character -- recall the mood and texture of such pictures even more vividly.
Whatever the current status of the projected film version of "The Thorn Birds," Gill Armstrong and Judy Davis seem uniquely qualified to bring it to life. Davis creates one of the most distinctive and affecting images of girlish impetuosity I've ever had the pleasure to comtemplate.
She portrays Sybylla's often contradictory surge of feelings with touching, unfailing clarity. Lightning emotional reflexes play across her deceptively "plain" countenance, and she enriches Sybylla's moods with witty little inventions. For example, when Sybylla feels neglected by Harry at a party Davis flashes a look of disgruntlement that brings the phrase "her nose has been pushed out of joint" irresistibly to mind, although she's shifted her own nose only an amusing wrinkle off-center.
Black-and-white stills fail to suggest how sublime Davis' image becomes when illuminated by McAlpine's mellow color photography. Backlighting endows her unruly mane of red hair and pale, freckled face with an aura of robust, spontaneous beauty.
"My Brilliant Career" is the most satisfying indication yet that things are definitely looking up Down Under.