Film review: My Brilliant Career (1979), directed by Gillian Armstrong
Sybylla Melvyn (Judy Davis) is a determined and headstrong young woman Fiery Redhead in rural Australia. She wants to have a Career, but she’s not quite sure yet as to what that would entail. All she knows is that she doesn’t want to be stuck as some lowly farmer’s wife … like her mother (Julia Blake). Her mother doesn’t seem to have much of a life with a drunken farmer husband (Alan Hopgood, who would later go on to pen a few episodes of The Flying Doctors) and looking after a bunch of kids.
To Sybylla’s delight, her well-to-do grandmother (Aileen Britton) takes her in, and there she meets the polite but dull Englishman Frank Hawdon (Robert Grubb with silly whiskers) … and a boy she used to know when she was younger: Harry Beecham (Sam Neill). Except Harry isn’t a boy anymore – he’s grown up to be a dashingly handsome man!
Romantic complications ensue – can Sybylla give up her dreams of becoming independent and have a Career (yes, it has to be capitalised), or has her priorities changed with her new circumstances – is securing love and a good life more important?
Also starring: Wendy Hughes as Aunt Helen, Peter Whitford as Uncle Julius, Patricia Kennedy as Aunt Gussie, and Max Cullen as Mr McSwatt, the man to whom Sybylla’s father ends up owing a lot of money.
My Brilliant Career is a costume drama, and it’s got the right ingredients for it – Victorian setting, long skirts, romance, etc. – but that it’s set in Australia and not Hampshire is something you don’t get to see too often over here. Indeed, I had never heard of it and only got it because of Sam Neill – which is as good an excuse to get it as any; Harry’s a dish! That it’s also got both Hopgood and Coopers Crossing royalty like car mechanic Hurtle (Cullen) and Dr Standish (Grubb without the whiskers and the toff accent) is cream with a big cherry on top for any Flying Doctors fan.
I remember first time I saw it, I couldn’t stop giggling at the facial hair and ridiculous accent of Frank Hawdon. Not that the accent sounds wrong, it fits the character to a tee, it’s just that it’s so over-the-top English Gentleman, and then to think he’d roar into another rural town some eight years later (give or take) in a V8 and be Mr Awesome Doctor … well, it amused me greatly.
The star of the show, however, is Sybylla herself. Judy Davis is a great actress, and this is the first of (at least) three times she’s starred alongside Sam Neill, but Sybylla is probably the character that I like the least out of those three performances. Her spirit and modern ideas are great, but she’s just too much of a self-obsessed snob about … well, most things. I like her wild, bushy hair, though. She really doesn’t look like a “proper lady” – she looks much more comfortable sitting up a tree singing drunken folk songs.
Sybylla’s relationship with Harry inspires conflicted groans in me as well, because on the one hand, she’s not willing to budge from her idea of independence – very commendable – but on the other, as a romance fan, I want to yell at her to stop being so pig-headed when Harry’s near enough throwing himself at her, proclaiming his undying love and what have you. “JUST MARRY THE MAN!” I want to scream. “You can be happy with the love of your life AND have a career, you know!” But it would just fall on deaf ears, sadly.
Still, as a film, it’s something nice to curl up in front of and watch on a rainy day or when you’re feeling under the weather. Just grab yourself a cup of tea and enjoy it, provided you like period dramas, that is. If you don’t, it might just feel a little too slow for you. On the plus side, you get to see Harry Beecham soaked to the skin after falling into a lake – sixteen years before Colin Firth took the world by storm by doing pretty much the same thing.
4 out of 5 freckles.