My Brilliant Career: You have a wildness of spirit

My Brilliant Career: You have a wildness of spirit
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While staying with her well-to-do grandmother, Sybylla (Judy Davis) has a crisis about her looks. Her Aunt Helen (Wendy Hughes) tells her to stop looking in mirrors and tries to make her more feminine. Suitor Frank Hawden (Robert Grubb) offers a gift of flowers. Summary by Paul Byrnes.

Funny and still topical sequence about self-image and self-confidence, ending with a powerful image showing Sybylla’s ‘wildness of spirit’. Water imagery carries forward throughout the film, representing a kind of feminine energy. Note the almost impressionist look to the scene by the lake.

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 Caddagat, her wealthy grandmother’s home, embarking on a beauty regimen that is overseen by the refined and gracious Aunt Helen (Wendy Hughes). Later, in an idyllic scene by the river, a transformed Sybylla sits beneath a tree reading a book. When suitor Frank Hawden (Robert Grubb) appears with flowers she graciously accepts them, but throws them into the river once he is out of frame. As rain begins to fall Sybylla is joyful, oblivious to her soaking dress or her ruined book, straw hat and gloves.

Educational value points

  • The film My Brilliant Career is based on the 1901 semi-autobiographical novel by Miles Franklin and is considered a classic of Australian cinema. It 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. She defies social convention and spurns the offer of marriage from a wealthy suitor in favour of independence and the chance to pursue a career as a writer.
  • Sybylla’s concerns about her appearance have been identified by the film’s director Gillian Armstrong as an important subtext of the film. The director wanted to show that Sybylla’s insecurities about her looks have no real basis. According to Armstrong, Sybylla discovers 'that she doesn’t fit into conventional ideas of beauty – she went through a process that every woman goes through at puberty of suddenly realising how important their looks are, and how they’re meant to be this or that’.
  • In this period, pale soft skin was associated with refinement and with the leisured or upper classes, and girls were encouraged to make the most of their looks within the strict confines of the day in order to be more marriageable. Their only chance of social or economic advancement was through making a 'good’ match. Sybylla’s beauty regimen is an attempt to counter the coarsening effects of farm work and the parasol, sunhat and gloves are intended protect her from the sun.
  • Sybylla tossing the flowers into the river and her reaction to the rain would have been considered very 'unladylike’ in the 1890s. Unlike Aunt Helen, Sybylla does not conform to conventional standards of femininity that required women to be passive and contained. Sybylla cannot repress her spirited, rebellious behaviour and Aunt Helen can only explain her actions as a 'wildness of spirit’.
  • The drought that is referred to in the clip became known as the 'Federation Drought’ and affected much of Australia from 1895 until 1902. It resulted in huge cattle and sheep losses and the virtual loss of the 1902 Australian wheat crop, crippling many farmers. Possum Gully, the Melvyns’ farm, which is based on a property Franklin’s family owned near Goulburn in New South Wales, is severely drought affected and this helps explain Sybylla’s excitement at the coming of the rain.
  • 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. According to production designer, Luciana Arrighi, in the scenes at Caddagat the filmmakers set out to create 'a lush look to capture the life of the squattocracy’, and Caddagat, with its soft interiors, comfort and abundance, represents one possible future for Sybylla if she succumbs to it rather than pursuing a career.
  • The film’s pictorial quality was inspired by Australian painters such as Tom Roberts, George Lambert and Rupert Bunny. The filmmakers replicated the soft play of light used by these artists by shooting most of the exteriors in the early morning or the late afternoon so the light would be low and slanting. The influence of Bunny, who was renowned for his impressionistic depictions of women at leisure, is evident in the scene by the river. However this idyllic tableau is subverted when Sybylla tosses the flowers in the river, a gesture that suggests she is not seduced by mere beauty or flattery.
  • My Brilliant Career was Gillian Armstrong’s first feature film. Armstrong had only recently graduated from the Australian Television and Radio School when producer Margaret Fink approached her to direct the film. Its success established her as one of Australia’s leading directors and among her feature films are Oscar and Lucinda (1997), Little Women (1994), High Tide (1987) and Mrs Soffel (1984). The film also launched the careers of lead actors Judy Davis and Sam Neill.

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