Saturday, 21 January 2023

My Brilliant Career (1979)


Min brillante karriere

It is entirely fitting that I review “My Brilliant Career” the day after my book review of “Sense and Sensibility”. Despite taking place a century and half the globe apart, they are concerned with exactly the same issues. That of gender politics from women’s point of view.

Around the turn of the century (1900), Sybylla (Judy Davis) is a daughter of a struggling farmer family in the Australian outback (or at least rural Australia). Sybylla is different. She dreams of becoming something, pianist, painter, writer, something different than farmhand or somebody’s wife. Her parents consider her vastly egoistic and conceited and in frustration send her off to her grandmother.

Grandma Bossier (Aileen Britton) is the Aussie version of nobility and hers is a vastly different world from what Sybylla is used to. This is as Victorian as anything to be found in Britain and Sybylla feels like a fish on land. Besides learning good manners, Sybylla is supposed to find a husband. Only that way she can retain respectability and secure means of living. The idea that Sybylla could make something of herself on her own is considered outlandish and a fad to grow out of. The first suitor is a British guest at the manor, Frank Hawdon (Robert Grubb), a man who considers himself quite a catch and who does not take no for an answer. The second is Harry Beecham (Sam Neill), a local landowner of the same social strata as Grandma Bossier. Harry is different and a relation between Harry and Sybylla blossoms, seriously challenging Sybylla’s ambition of avoiding marriage.

The core of the story is, again, the narrow scope of prospects allowed for women. As in Jane Austen’s world, the sole purpose of women is to be married off to a man. That is her intrinsic value. She can marry into prestige and wealth, but even marriage in itself, as poorly as the match may be, is necessary in order to be anything. The alternative is to be a spinster, dependent on family, or utter poverty and disgrace. The century between Austen and “My Brilliant Career” makes no difference at all.

Sybylla dares challenge this system and while we may understand her today (“may” as in, sadly, not the entire world thinks like that), her contemporaries are nonplussed and rather confused how to deal with her. Not just the ruling class, but even the dirt farmers in their squalor subscribe to that attitude.

As a viewer we are challenged to join that opinion. Do we also consider her conceited and selfish and unable to compromise? Or do we support her choices? It is not as easy and simple as it sounds. Sure, there is no way she should marry Frank, and it is also easy to challenge Bossier’s Victorian views, but would it be too much to ask for her to assist her struggling family? And why not give in and marry Harry? It is obvious they love each other.

“My Brilliant Career” is a beautifully made movie with a wonderful restauration of rural Australia 120 years ago. Production value is top notch. It is also a movie with excellent actors performances, especially from Judy Davis, but also the two matriarchs Bossier and Aunt Gussie (Patricia Kennedy) are wonderful. It entirely baffling that the only Academy nomination this movie garnered was for Best costume design. But then, 79 looks to have been a strong year.

I liked “My Brilliant Career” a lot better than I expected and it does what few movies succeed to do, challenge its audience. Recommended.



  1. I had the same reaction. Sybylla is such a lovely character in a lot of ways.

    1. In the beginning I was not so certain. It took a little while and effort to see that and that is the effort that at least some of the other characters in the movie is not making.

  2. I see we are on the same page with this one!