This is the film that became a worldwide sensation and remains perhaps the most beloved and acclaimed romantic epic of all time! Oscar®-nominee Judy Davis (Passage to India, Husbands and Wives) made her international breakthrough debut as Sybylla Melvyn, a free-spirited young writer who refuses to conform to society's expectations of how a 'proper woman' should live her life. Sam Neill (Jurassic Park, The Piano) co-stars as the wealthy suitor who tries to win her restless heart in this Oscar® nominated classic directed by Gillian Armstrong (Little Women, Starstruck).
Long unavailable in America, My Brilliant Career has been fully restored and remastered in sumptuous High Definition from the original negative, under the supervision of Academy Award® nominated Director of Photography Donald McAlpine (Moulin Rouge, Romeo+Juliet).
'My Brilliant Career' may not seem like such an important movie today, but at the time of its release in 1979, it was quite a big deal – for the fledgling Australian film industry; for its heretofore unknown stars, Judy Davis and Sam Neill; and for the still-burgeoning women's movement in the United States. While 'An Unmarried Woman,' released the previous year, boldly stoked the flames of feminism by focusing on a modern divorcee's sexual and spiritual awakening as she approached middle age, 'My Brilliant Career' quietly examines a headstrong young woman's unconventional views on marriage, independence, and professional achievement, all of which go against the grain of the traditional, highly structured, and often stifling society of 1890s rural Australia. Gillian Armstrong's film possesses little flash and at times slows to a snail's pace, but its story strangely resonates, and 30 years later still possesses the power to inspire and motivate women around the world.
Like Dorothy in 'The Wizard of Oz', teenager Sybylla Melvyn (Davis) endures a drab, harsh existence on a windswept farm. The only difference is that her homestead isn't in Kansas, but rather deep in the Australian bush. Plain, a bit unkempt, insecure, and largely ignored by her impoverished family, Sybylla dreams openly about what she believes will be her "brilliant career" as an author. Yet instead of traveling over the rainbow, she's shipped off to her wealthy grandmother's estate, where the obstinate lass learns manners, mores, and how to mingle with eligible young gentlemen. Dashing Harry Beecham (Neill) becomes smitten and Sybylla returns his affections, but the prospect of marriage and a staid life raising children and tending house doesn't appeal to her. Her restless spirit craves independent fulfillment, and she wishes to make her own mark on the world through her work. Can love tame her wild heart even as it quashes her ambitions, or will Sybylla's iron will and stubborn mind lead her down a lonely yet stimulating path?
Such blatant feminist overtones might sabotage a contemporary project, but because 'My Brilliant Career' is set at the turn of the century in a highly chauvinistic land before the suffragette movement really began to take hold, the slanted viewpoint adds a fascinating edge to the story. As much a tale of a broad culture as an individual character portrait, Armstrong's film meticulously depicts the extremes of Australian society and the difficulties inherent in navigating it, and its uncompromising view of the not-always-likeable Sybylla allows us to form our own opinion of her, and it's not always favorable. Coarse and selfish, Sybylla could be a forerunner to Scarlett O'Hara (though she lacks that character's beauty and breeding), but author Miles Franklin, upon whose autobiographical novel the movie is based, makes the point that if a woman of that time wished to carve out an existence without a man at her side, she must embrace such qualities. Sybylla does, and though she tempers them as the film progresses, she realizes she must also protect them if she wishes to achieve her goals.
For a first major feature, Armstrong does a fine job with the story's myriad subtleties. There's not much tangible plot in Eleanor Witcomb's literate script, and the movie sometimes suffers for it, but the characters are interesting enough to keep the picture chugging along. Period detail is striking, especially when one considers the film's budget constraints, and the acting is first-rate. Davis, only 23 at the time and fresh out of drama school, proves she, too, will have a brilliant career, thanks to a raw, heartfelt performance that really gets under Sybylla's skin. According to Armstrong, Davis and Neill didn't get on very well, but such friction often creates palpable romantic tension on screen, and the pair feasts on it. Neill, looking very boyish, brings a quiet sincerity to his role that nicely offsets the brazen Davis, and stands toe-to-toe with her in their scenes together.
'My Brilliant Career' is certainly not everyone's cup of tea. I found it intermittently intriguing and deadly dull, but those who appreciate languorous character studies, fine performances, and period films with pointed messages will find much to like. Of course, having a strong feminist viewpoint doesn't hurt, either.
According to the packaging, 'My Brilliant Career' has been "fully restored and remastered…from the original negative, under the supervision of…Director of Photography Donald McAlpine," and though the film undoubtedly looks better than it ever has, problems still remain. This is a spotty transfer at best, and early on exhibits a distractingly grainy texture, along with some intermittent white speckling. The color palette remains muted throughout, but at times looks slightly faded. As the movie progresses, however, image quality improves, and the film takes on a more lifelike appearance. Clarity becomes greater and fine details and fabrics look a bit more defined.
Black levels throughout are rich and deep, and fleshtones appear accurate. Close-ups are pleasing, but never exhibit the razor sharpness of more recent and expensive releases. Like the Australian bush where much of the movie transpires, the transfer feels slightly rough but always real, and the lack of any digital enhancements maintains that natural coarseness. This transfer won't convert any naysayers to high-def, but those familiar with the film and its low-budget, independent background should be pleased with this Blu-ray rendering.
For a quiet film like 'My Brilliant Career,' a 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track might seem like overkill, but even though the movie doesn't maximize the format's multi-channel capabilities, the sound produced is clear and dimensional. Surround activity may be sparse and often faint, but a fine sense of atmospherics comes through, especially during the sequences in the Australian bush. Front channel separation is more pronounced, however, with a few seamless pans adding welcome realism to the on-screen action. Unfortunately, limited dynamic range hampers the audio somewhat – the music often sounds a bit shrill and low-end tones don't possess much weight. In fact, bass frequencies are pretty much non-existent, but that's to be expected for a film of this vintage and budget.
Dialogue occasionally gets drowned out by other effects, but for the most part is well prioritized and easy to understand, despite the accents. Thankfully, few imperfections muddy the audio waters, although I did notice a hint of static every once in a while. All-in-all, this is a fine effort for a challenging, low-budget film.
Blue Underground puts together a nice supplemental package for this disc. The material isn't extensive, but it's well produced and greatly enhances the film.
Though produced three decades ago, 'My Brilliant Career' holds up well and stands as an admirable achievement for director Gillian Armstrong. This slow-moving period drama has limited appeal, but drama fans will appreciate the meaty themes, exotic Australian setting, and excellent performances from Judy Davis and Sam Neill. Fine video, audio, and supplements enhance this disc, which is certainly worth a look.