Gillian Armstrong’s Feminist Film ‘My Brilliant Career’ Illuminates Why Women Feel Compelled to Fulfill Societal Soles

TCM will feature films from 12 decades— representing 44 countries—totaling 100 classic and current titles, all created by women. Read more about this here! 

In 1979, director Gillian Armstrong created one of Australia’s finest pieces of feminist film—My Brilliant Career. Based on the novel by Miles Franklin, it centers on a woman who is full of spirit and determination to take full control of her own life. Judy Davis stars as the protagonist who is ready to defy all societal expectations with her thoughts and actions, without a care for what others think. (KIZJ: 4/5) 

Review by FF2 Contributing Editor Katusha Jin

It’s 1897, and hidden somewhere in Australia’s countryside is an outspoken free spirit—otherwise known as “Sybylla Melvyn” (Judy Davis). She spends her time dreaming of a life away from the confines of the expected path for a young woman. In her mind, a career as a famous actress or a successful writer would better suit her talents. Unfortunately, her aspirations are met with mockery and annoyance. To her family, they are mere daydreams that stand in the way of Sybylla moving on to the next stage of life—marriage. 

The family is in a difficult situation where they can barely afford to pay for everyone’s expenses, and if Sybylla were to marry, it would be a load off their shoulders. Sybylla’s “Mother” (Julia Blake) describes her daughter as “useless, plain and godless,” which is followed by a discussion between Sybylla and her sister, “Gertie” (Marion Shad), about whether they should want more out of life. Although Gertie describes her sister as clever, Sybylla concludes that rather than cleverness, it’s more akin to madness—it would have been better if she didn’t think at all!

The poor girl wants to follow her gut and flee off into the world to seek out an adventurous life but is instead shackled to a farm surrounded by the financial realities of her family’s present situation. One day, she receives a letter informing her that she must go live with her rich “Grandma Bossier” (Aileen Britton) to help with her parents’ money issues. In her new accommodation, she meets the dashing “Harry Beecham” (Sam Neill). Despite Harry being a well-to-do landowner, Sybylla’s charm erases their class difference, and he falls for her in no time. The expected response for a woman would have been to accept him with flailing arms. Unsurprisingly, the protagonist’s determination to live on her own terms, rather than fall into societal norms, prevents her from taking what looks like the “easy way out”—even if it is to be with the man whom she loves and loves her back. 

Director Gillian Armstrong’s film follows a plot we are now quite familiar with–a girl from the countryside wants to break free from her current circumstances and venture out to explore what life has to offer her. However, when considering it was made in 1979 and the fact that the focus is less so on the romance and more on the female protagonist’s yearning for a career, it’s easy to understand why My Brilliant Career is one of Australia’s most notable feminist films. Aside from feminism, the film also dips us into the themes of sexism, classism, and a dash of romance. 

The film is based on the novel of the same name, which was the first of many novels by Miles Franklin. It is largely based on autobiographical aspects of Franklin, who spent her childhood in the same rural area. In such an unconventional film, Judy Davis was the perfect portrait of a headstrong protagonist who was never meant to live and think from inside the confinements of society’s rules. Her performance was recognized with a BAFTA award, and the film went on to get multiple nominations, including an Academy Award nomination. 

As much as we like to think that we have come so far, it was eerily uncomfortable for me to realize the similarities between the judgment Sybylla received when choosing her career over romance and the judgment many career-driven women of today still receive.

© Katusha Jin (11/27/2020) FF2 Media

Featured Photo: Judy Davis

Middle Photo: Judy Davis

Bottom Photo: Still from My Brilliant Career (1979)

Photo Credits: The Criterion Channel 

Q: Does My Brilliant Career pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

Although this film is absolutely filled with talk about boys, the girls do have moments where they discuss fashion, style, and dreams.

Tags: FF2 Media, My Brilliant Career Gillian Armstrong, TCM, Turner Classic Movies, WomeMakeFilm, Women Make Film, WomenMakeFilms

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As part of the FF2 Media team, Katusha Jin interviews filmmakers, write features and reviews, and coaches other associates. She grew up in the UK and studied briefly in Russia and China before moving to New York for college. Graduating magna cum laude from New York University, Katusha majored in Film and Television at Tisch School of the Arts with minors in Business and Philosophy. She has worked as a producer, director, writer, and composer for various award-winning projects including short films, branded content, independent features, and music videos.
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