Saturday, July 25, 2009

A Review: My Brilliant Career (1979)

Sybylla Melvyn, what a wonderful character of celluloid.

This is in my opinion one of the finest films ever made in Australia by Australians (speaking as an Australian). And yesterday was my second time in seeing it. I really enjoyed it the first time and likewise with the second time (which doesn't always happen, does it? sometimes the magic can wear off and it feels as if you're not watching the same, once beloved film). It was great to see again why I like this film - the music, the capturing of the open Australian landscape, the great costumes that take you back in time, all the characters that shine, the messages of the film (which spoke out to me more on the second viewing).

A little on the plot. The film is based on a book by Miles Franklin. It's set in late 1880s colonial Australia and centres around Sybylla Melvyn (a young Judy Davis, who sinks right into her role), a young woman raised in a poor family who strives for an independent livelihood in a context where women shouldn't strive for anything higher than marriage and children. Sybylla is adamant about what she wants, but that is until the arrival of rich and handsome Harry Beacham (Sam Neill, appropriately dashing) - suddenly she is very conflicted. Sounds conventional, seen it all before, right? Well no. It's on the strength of the performances, the script and the direction that this film doesn't fall into the scrap heap of routine costume dramas. The film has depth and can spread messages to you if you want it to. It's true to life because it shows that you can't have everything, you're forced to make decisions and compromises and let go, as hard as that can be. And you've got to learn to live with your decisions and be satisfied, as Sybylla is in the final scene of the film (boy, don't I sound preachy?).

It's always nice to see a female director at the helm of a film, and in this case that director is Gillian Armstrong (maybe most famous for her 1994 adaptation of Little Women, which itself bears similarities with this film). Apparently the budget was tight in this film, but I never noticed. All I noticed was how craftly this was made and with much more effort and creativity than is usually seen in Australian cinema today.

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