My Brilliant Career: There's more to life than this

My Brilliant Career: There's more to life than this
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Sybylla Melvyn (Judy Davis) tells younger sister Gertie (Marion Shad) of her desire to escape a life of rural drudgery. Her frustrations increase when she’s sent to drag her father out of the pub. Summary by Paul Byrnes.

Good introduction of central themes: what horizons can a woman in 1898 Australia dream of? Note how she stops at the door of the pub – women are not allowed inside.

My Brilliant Career synopsis

During the drought of 1898, headstrong and vivacious Sybylla Melvyn (Judy Davis) dreams of escaping the drudgery of farm life for a career as a writer. On an extended visit to her aristocratic grandmother (Aileen Britton), she meets Harry Beecham (Sam Neill), a well-to-do grazier. Sybylla must decide if love will interrupt her plans for a brilliant career.

My Brilliant Career curator's notes

My Brilliant Career introduced two startling new talents to the Australian public. It was the first feature of Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) graduate Gillian Armstrong, one of the first women to break into feature directing in the 1970s, and the first time most Australians had seen the astonishingly talented Judy Davis, who had recently graduated from the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), in Sydney.

The timing was perfect, as was the choice of subject. Miles Franklin’s semi-autobiographical novel, published in Edinburgh in 1901, was a ground-breaking feminist text from an earlier era that perfectly dramatised the concerns of many women in the late 1970s. The period setting only served to underline the idea that the dilemmas had not changed that much for modern women. Career or marriage was still a difficult choice, and Sybylla Melvyn presented a powerful role model – a feminist warrior, in the same year that produced a masculine fantasy in the road warrior, Mad Max.

Judy Davis’s performance is a large part of what audiences responded to – Sybylla’s blazing self–assurance, her courage and youthful anger, her refusal to settle for anything less than the moon. The film’s cinematography has great contrast – the flat, barren landscapes of the Melvyn family’s farm in the midst of drought gives way to green and verdant homesteads of the landed gentry.

Cinematographer Don McAlpine gives some of these scenes an impressionist look, emphasising the sense of privilege. Armstrong showed a great pictorial sophistication, a kind of visual sensuality. The film remains one of the high points of the 'new wave’ of Australian cinema in the 1970s and a leading influence on women who followed in film in the 80s and 90s.

Notes by Paul Byrnes

Education notes

This clip shows Sybylla Melvyn (Judy Davis) at Possum Gully, the family farm, talking to her sister Gertie (Marion Shad) about her ambitions to escape a life of rural drudgery and to pursue a literary career, and then, as she milks a cow, bemoaning the lack of choices open to her. Her frustrations increase when her mother sends her to retrieve her father from the pub.

Educational value points

  • The clip reflects the central theme of the film – that of the individual at odds with the acceptable social norm. Considered a classic of Australian cinema, My Brilliant Career charts the growing self-awareness of the headstrong and passionate 16-year-old Sybylla Melvyn and her desire to escape the drudgery and genteel poverty of her family’s dairy farm to make something of herself. To Sybylla, marriage represents a kind of servitude and she spurns a proposal from a wealthy suitor in favour of independence and the chance to pursue a career as a writer.
  • There were limited choices available to women in the late 1890s. Careers of any kind, beyond the roles of wife and mother, were rare for women, with marriage the only means to better their social standing. Working- and lower-middle-class women were forced through economic circumstance to work in menial occupations, usually as domestic servants, in factories, or in nurturing roles such as nannies, nurses and governesses.
  • In this period Sybylla’s desire for a career sets her apart and makes her feel different from other girls of her age, for whom the pressure to get married and thereby avoid the social stigma of being single was intense. In this clip Sybylla’s unruly mop of hair, signifying her untamed nature, is contrasted with Gertie’s ringleted hair, which is neatly contained in rags.
  • At the turn of the century in Australia, women involved in the early feminist movement were articulating similar concerns to Sybylla and campaigning to have the same basic rights as men, including to be educated, to have a profession and to vote. The film was released in the 1970s, when the women’s liberation movement had once again raised issues such as a woman’s right to be self-determining and to choose a career, and Sybylla’s nascent feminism resonated with audiences.
  • The film is based on Miles Franklin’s semi-autobiographical novel My Brilliant Career. Informed by feminism and the nationalistic tradition of realism, the book was published to critical acclaim in London in 1901 after being rejected for publication in Australia. Franklin continued publishing under both her own name (though her first given name was Stella) and the pseudonym Brent of Bin Bin, but only achieved notable success again in 1936 with the prize-winning All That Swagger, which she wrote with Dymphna Cusack. A passionate supporter of Australian literature, she bequeathed her estate to found the prestigious Miles Franklin Literary Award for Australian fiction.
  • The clip provides an example of how place in the film is used to convey meaning. The film’s mise en scène works both pictorially to reproduce the period and dramatically to signify Sybylla’s development as a character. Production designer, Luciana Arrighi, said that in the Possum Gully scenes the filmmakers wanted to create 'a documentary look to capture the roughness and harshness of the period’. The dusty, threadbare setting, with its flat and unyielding landscape, reflects not just the Melvyns’ genteel poverty and the severe drought, but suggests the oppressiveness of Sybylla’s experience of life there.
  • The film, like Franklin’s novel, reveals that life in the bush for women in the late 1890s was often harsh, repetitive and stifled any creativity. Sybylla is very different from the bush heroine of early Australian films of the 1920s and 1930s, who was portrayed as a capable, outdoor type who could ride, shoot, and brand cattle, and always married the hero.
  • My Brilliant Career was Gillian Armstrong’s first feature film. Armstrong had only recently graduated from the Australian Film Television and Radio School when producer Margaret Fink approached her to direct the film. Its success established Armstrong as one of Australia’s leading directors and was the first commercially released Australian film directed by a woman since the 1933 release of Paulette McDonagh’s Two Minutes. It paved the way for women filmmakers at a time when filmmaking was the preserve of men.
  • Judy Davis is shown in the role that launched her career. Davis, who was a recent graduate of the National Institute of Dramatic Art, was a relative unknown when she was cast in My Brilliant Career, having only appeared in the obscure High Rolling (1977). Davis was universally praised for the vitality and sensitivity with which she portrayed Sybylla and for her riveting screen presence. Much of the film’s success is attributed to her performance, with the role establishing her as one of Australia’s leading actors.

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia

Production company:
Margaret Fink Films
Margaret Fink
Associate Producer:
Jane Scott
Gillian Armstrong
Eleanor Witcombe
From the novel by:
Miles Franklin
Musical director:
Nathan Waks
Julia Blake, Aileen Britton, Max Cullen, Sue Davies, Judy Davis, David Franklin, Robert Grubb, Alan Hopgood, Wendy Hughes, Patricia Kennedy, Sam Neill, Marion Shad, Carole Skinner, Peter Whitford, Aaron Wood

This clip starts approximately 8 minutes into the feature.

We see Sybylla and her sister Gertie standing outside in the dark with their night gowns on.
Sybylla I want to do great things, Gertie, not be a servant. I hate this life. We should never have left the mountains.
Gertie It’s not father’s fault. You can’t blame him for the drought.
Sybylla Gertie, don’t you ever dream there’s more to life than this? Don’t you want to meet people who talk about books and words and have visions.
Gertie hugs the tree branch contemplating what Sybylla is saying.
Sybylla Gertie, I can’t settle for a new dress, a picnic now and then — living out in the bush for the rest of my life, I might just as well be dead.
Gertie Don’t say things like that!
Sybylla Why doesn’t mother understand? Why doesn’t anyone?
Gertie I think you’re the nicest, cleverest girl in the whole entire world.
Sybylla I’m not. I’m mad. It would be better if I didn’t think at all.

We cut to Sybylla milking a cow.
Sybylla (voice-over) There’s no use for me. I have no training, no money. I don’t even have time to study or practice. Just two states of existence — work and sleep.
Sybylla’s mother Sybylla!
Sybylla continues milking.
Sybylla’s mother Sybylla, why do you never answer when I call? I want you to fetch your father.
Sybylla stops milking the cow and looks up at her mother. Sybylla gets up quickly and hands the pail of milk to her sister Gertie and walks off back into the house.
Gertie It’s all right. I’ll do it.
Gertie sits down and starts to milk the cow. Sybylla’s mum looks back at Sybylla storming off.

Sybylla walks into a pub full of men.
Barman Looking for your dad are you? Just missed him. Left with the school master. 
Man Blind leading the blind.
All the men in the pub laugh at the comment. Sybylla walks out of the pub, jumps onto a horse and carriage and drives off.