Criterion Review: Gillian Armstrong’s ‘My Brilliant Career’

The best feeling in the world is seeing a movie for the first time and instantly recognizing it must be one of the greatest films ever made. That feeling came as I watched Gillian Armstrong’s debut feature and the greatest coming-of-age film ever made, My Brilliant Career (1979). Based on the novel by Miles Franklin (real name: Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin) and featuring an incredible performance by Judy Davis, it is a groundbreaking portrait of a teenager searching for her place in the world.

Davis stars as Sybylla Melvyn, whose immediate family has fallen on hard times in 1897 Australia. Sybylla dreams of a creative life, in which she could earn a living from playing piano or writing. But her parents think her ideas are preposterous, so they send her to live with her grandmother in the hopes she will be straightened out.

Cover by F. Ron Miller

Once there, jackaroo Frank Hawdon (Robert Grubb) and childhood friend Harry Beecham (Sam Neill) begin to court her. Sybylla rejects Frank, but begins to fall in love with Harry. However, for Sybylla to marry anyone would be an insult to everything she stands for. The only way she can truly find out who she is is by going off on her own.

There’s so much in My Brilliant Career that turns expectations on their heads. As part of the wave of great Australian movies from the 1970s, the credits are packed with incredible talent. The cinematography by Donald McAlpine (who would later earn an Oscar nomination for shooting Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!) features breathtaking compositions that bring Australia’s unique environment to life. The Oscar-nominated costume design by Anna Senior and production design by Luciana Arrigji work to in tandem to create a detailed look at the time period.

However, as Armstrong makes perfectly clear in her new interview, the film works so well because of its story. Sybylla is a unique female character in the history of film, bringing to the screen most concerns any teenager has. She doesn’t have minuscule aspirations with arbitrary deadlines like the last day of school or the last day of the summer so she can get the approval of others. Sybylla is seeking no one’s approval but her own, and she realizes quickly that finding herself does not need a deadline.

The book and its script, by the late Eleanor Whitcombe, is also remarkably well-structured. Each of Sybylla’s aunts present alternate futures for her, and it’s weaved organically into the story. The histories of these women make it clear to Sybylla and the audience that her brilliant career can only start if she breaks free of the past and sets on her own path.

The Blu-Ray

My Brilliant Career was previously released on Blu-ray in the U.S. by Blue Underground in 2009. Unlike that edition, which presented the film in 1.78:1 to fill a 16X9 television, Criterion presents it in its original 1.85:1 ratio. The transfer is also made using a new 4K restoration completed with the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. Approved by Armstrong, the transfer keeps the feeling of watching a film. It’s not scrubbed of grain, but completely damage-free.

Criterion only carried over Blue Underground’s 2009 commentary with Armstrong, adding a small collection of their own extras:

  • Commentary: Armstrong’s solo track provides a detailed look at the making of the film. She is also surprisingly thorough on other topics, including the state of the burgeoning Australian film industry at the time My Brilliant Career was made.
  • Gillian Armstrong: The director recorded a new, 25-minute interview that offers more insight into the movie. Armstrong is surprisingly candid, even admitting the mistakes she made as a rookie director. It’s surprising to hear her frankness about filmmaking, and how frustrated she was to only receive offers for period movies after My Brilliant Career became an international hit.
  • Judy Davis: In Armstrong’s interview, she revealed that Davis does not care for the film, even though it was her breakthrough movie. Armstrong took the blame for that, and hoped Davis would eventually come around to liking it. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that Davis is represented through a 1980 French television interview instead of a new feature. That’s no a big deal though, because this one is more enlightening than usual French TV excerpts. It runs about 26 minutes.
  • Luciana Arrighi – Production designer Arrighi also proves to be a fascinating interview subject. In about 13 minutes, she runs through her relationship with Armstrong and her approach to creating the look of My Brilliant Career.
  • One Hundred A Day – Thanks to a move only Criterion would pull, we get Armstrong’s 1973 student film One Hundred A Day. Running just seven minutes, the film is a heartbreaking look at a factory worker getting an abortion.
  • Trailer
  • “Unapologetic Women” – The Philadelphia Inquirer critic Carrie Rickey provides the essay in the included leaflet.

My Brilliant Career lives up to its title. Its uncompromising portrait of a growing up, presented with humor and a kind of loose-ness usually not found in period films. Armstrong successfully presents a collection of characters we easily identify with, even if the film is set more than a hundred years ago. Sybylla endures as one of the great characters because she brings to light feelings we’ve all had, from insecurities to creative ambitions and desires to leave paths chosen by others. It is an immaculate, truly perfect film and hopefully Criterion’s release brings it to a new audience of young people who need to see it.

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