My Brilliant Career

English Title: My Brilliant Career

Country of Origin: Australia

Director: Gillian Armstrong

Producer(s): Margaret Fink

Screenplay: Eleanor Witcombe

Cinematographer: Donald M. McAlpine

Editor: Nicholas Beauman

Runtime: 100 minutes

Genre: period film, AFC genre

Starring/Cast: Aaron Wood, Peter Whitford, Marion Shad, Gordon Piper, Sam Neill, Patricia Kennedy, Wendy Hughes, Alan Hopgood, Robert Grubb, David Franklin, Judy Davis, Sue Davies, Max Cullen, Aileen Britton, Julia Blake

Year: 1979

Other Information:
  From the novel by Miles Franklin


Sybylla Melvin is a young woman with bigger dreams than life as a wife and mother in the bush – she wants to write. However there is little time for this in her day-to-day life on the drought stricken farm she lives on with her family. There is only time (as she says in voice over as she milks a cow) to work and sleep.The financial woes of the family lead her mother to send her away to her rich grandmother’s home. So begins Sybylla’s complicated journey toward selfhood. At the lush green homestead of Caddagat she grapples with how behave in a lady-like fashion, and how to reconcile her self to the social order. When Sybylla falls in love with the well-to-do landowner, Harry Beacham, she is faced with her toughest decision when he asks for her hand in marriage. But ultimately Sybylla cannot agree to marry, as she fears she will never fulfil her dream to write if she does. Unable to settle for a life in the bush, “having a baby every year”, she chooses her ”brilliant” career over love, and writes her novel.


My Brilliant Career is based on the novel of the same name published in 1901 by Miles Franklin. Miles Franklin was a female writer who wrote of themes close to her heart – the difficult choice faced by women between personal creative fulfilment and the traditional domestic role of wife and mother. This was a theme that resonated strongly in the 1970’s, as more women entered the workforce in the aftermath of the Women’s Liberation movement of the 1960’s, and discovered that equal opportunities often translated into a choice between work and marriage. The transposition of these contemporary themes into the Period film was a canny manoeuvre by female producer Margot Fink and female director Gillian Armstrong. My Brilliant Career has a freshness of theme that resonates to this day, helped enormously by the charismatic performance of Judy Davis in her first major role.


My Brilliant Career very actively engages with the powerful mythology of the Australian outback – nature and culture are seen as two distinct oppositional forces. Sybylla longs to be away from the bush, to be immersed in culture, in the world of music, ideas and language. As she says to her sister in an early scene of the film: “don’t you dream of more than this? Living out in the bush, I might as well be dead!”. The first scene of the film opens with Sybylla beginning to write her story, only to be interrupted by the primal force of nature outside as a huge dust storm engulfs the farm, forcing her away from her desk. The theme of drought is established early - the opening shot of the film is a wide shot of the family farm in bright sunlight, the landscape bleached and pale, a frame very reminiscent of Arthur Streeton’s painting The Selectors Hut (1890) with it’s huge expanse of sky. Don McAlpine’s cinematography powerfully contrasts the harsh dry landscape of Sybylla’s family farm with the seductive lushness of her grandmother’s verdant English style home and gardens. In this section the compositions are very painterly, recalling the palette and design of French Impressionism, which is carried through by the art direction of the interiors at Caddagat. Luciana Arrighi uses fresh floral tones in the wallpaper, and arrangements of fresh green leaves in vases. Cultivated nature is ever present in the frame, contrasting with the sombre earthiness of the farm.


Breaking up the simple dialectic of nature versus culture is Sybylla herself, who seems to operate as a force of some other kind, disrupting the accepted order of things. Her Aunt Helen tells her that she has “a wildness of spirit that is going to get you into trouble all your life. So you must try and learn to control it, and try and cultivate a little feminine vanity”.  This wildness in Sybylla is symbolised by water throughout the film. In a scene following her My Fair Lady style makeover, she is presented with a bunch of flowers by a possible suitor as she reads delicately by a picture perfect lake – only to give in to her own sense of life and throw the flowers in the lake. Drops of rain begin to fall, and she jumps up, allowing herself to revel in the downpour, soaked to the skin. Sybylla longs for water after so many years of her drought on the family farm, but it is also a metaphor for her self. And it is this irrepressible nature of hers that literally rocks the boat, when she is being punted around a lake in an elegant courtship by Harry, she purposefully capsizes the punt, and they are submerged – Sybylla rejecting this mirage of happiness in favour of unknown depths. This is perhaps what is so powerful about My Brilliant Career

 it is a story that could be Australia’s version of Pride & Prejudice, though it upends Jane Austen’s novel, inserting a thoroughly modern character into the outback mythology. Gillian Armstrong and Margaret Fink stood up for Miles Franklin’s original ending to the novel when film investors were unsure, and the bold image of Sybylla alone at the gate, after posting her novel, looking off into the setting sun is an image that subtly recalls the iconic moment of Vivien Leigh standing alone in a technicolour sunset in Gone with the Wind, saying “I will go on”. My Brilliant Career is a film that doesn’t simplify the complexity of Sybylla’s decision, and its themes continue to resonate strongly today.

Author of this review: Bonnie Elliott