Gillian Armstrong’s first feature is a meticulously designed literary adaptation cum biopic. Miles Franklin is the pen name of Sybylla Melvyn (Judy Davis) who precociously embarks on an account of her “brilliant career” in 1897, at the age of 16. A closing title informs us her book was published in Scotland in 1901.Sybylla is plain, defiantly outspoken and determined to be an accomplished musician, actress or writer rather than humble outback farmer’s wife. So her poor family dispatches her to rich Grandma Bossier (Aileen Britton) and Aunt Helen (Wendy Hughes), and later neighbouring Aunt Gussie (Patricia Kennedy), in the hope of quieting her ambition, or at least instilling some propriety.
A staunch opponent of a premature marriage, and rejecter of pompous suitor Frank Hawden (Robert Grubb), Sybylla finds herself in the novel position of falling in love with her grandmother’s neighbour, Harry Beecham (Sam Neill). Beecham is one of the few men of his station not to be galled by her presumptuous behaviour and Sybylla must soon choose between married life and pursuing her vaguely formulated career.
Judy Davis, in her first leading film role, brings Sybylla brilliantly to life. Here is a young woman determined to forge ahead, learning from her mistakes and indiscretions as she goes. The rest of the cast seems bloodless and stiff in comparison. A notable exception is Sam Neill, whose international career was also launched by My Brilliant Career.
Armstrong and adaptor Eleanor Witcombe have obviously had a tough time drawing out a narrative thread from Franklin’s work. But continuity is provided by Davis’s performance, Don McAlpine’s cinematography and the fine production design of Luciana Arrighi. The film amounts to more than Sybylla’s episodic quest for life experience.My Brilliant Career was released after a trend of Australian period coming-of-age films had run its course in the mid-to-late 1970s. Its success proved there was still life in the genre, and that producing period films was not just a phase the Australian film industry needed to survive to “grow up”.